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Education Technology - The transformational potential of Microsoft Azure
Ask a University technical helpdesk about their most frequent calls (Deep sigh, ‘Here we go again! Why on earth don’t they?’) and it’s a safe bet that requests for help with resetting forgotten or necessarily changed passwords will come high up on the list. Such calls are frustrating for users and eat up the time of skilled technicians. They’re expensive, too – helping users with their passwords typically accounts for a fifth of an institution’s IT budget.
Unless, that is, you work on a helpdesk which benefits from Microsoft’s Azure enterprise cloud service and particularly that part of it which includes Self-Service Password Reset (SSPR).
The University of Dundee, for example, which uses Azure SSPR as part of Microsoft’s Enterprise Mobility Suite (EMS) saw password-related helpdesk calls reduce by half in October 2016. Given that this was the first full month after deployment, further reductions are confidently expected, with proportionate benefits in terms of costs, efficiency and user-satisfaction.
Of course, SSPR, and EMS itself make up just one highly visible component of a whole raft of cloud-based efficiency gains and cost benefits made possible by Microsoft Azure. When I asked Lee Stott, Microsoft’s Chief Technical Officer, Academic Engagements, for his take on Azure ‘killer applications’ he immediately mentioned ‘Dev Test Labs’, which makes it easy for students and academics to put together and run test environments for their projects, using clusters of virtual machines with pre-installed software. Much ‘heavy lifting’ in terms of computing is removed, and the cost and efficiency savings are potentially transformative.
Lee has a fuller, rather more technical account of Dev Test Labs on his own blog.
The story for researchers is similar. University research projects typically call heavily upon computing power, and Azure makes it possible to have that power as an on-demand, pay-for-what-you-need, easy-to-use service. The Azure for Research website, azure4research, has stories of remarkable projects from across the globe, descriptions of just how academic researchers and experts in the field can, together, tackle seemingly intractable problems with the aid of Azure.
"Azure for me was perfect. I could scale my compute capability with my current computational needs. What is also great is that as we didn’t have to outlay any capital investment in a particular architecture I could also change up the physical makeup of my cluster as required. I can set up a whole new cluster with just a few lines of script code."
So, in just one of many real-world examples, we see the power of Azure being harnessed to help keep airports working smoothly. Regular air travellers soon realise that bottlenecks in the movements of aircraft on the ground can cause frustrating delays for airlines and passengers, as well as extra fuel costs and higher emissions. The drive to achieve deeper understanding of the multiple influences at work on the tarmac arteries of a modern airport led academics at Stirling and Nottingham Universities, working with airport experts, to collect and analyse data on thousands of aircraft movements, using open-source tools in Azure. Jason Atkin, assistant professor at the University of Nottingham, one of the researchers on the project says, of Azure.
“One of the things cloud computing does is bring the power and data processing ability of huge machines to any researcher’s desk.”
The list of good reasons why a university should consider Microsoft Azure is too long to set out here. What’s important is the overall principle, which is that Azure brings within the reach of academics and learners unprecedented computing power and immense and flexible data storage capacity, all at a cost which is not only affordable but predictable. That’s because, crucially, Azure is available ‘as a service’, which means that, in common with your other utilities such as energy, you pay only for what you use. If you want a larger cluster of machines for a particular project, you can create them in Azure without buying any hardware, and use them only as long as they’re needed. And if you need to know in advance how much your Azure-based project is going to cost, you can use the Azure Pricing Calculator.
As Simon O’Hanlon of Imperial College puts it on the Azure4Research website: “Azure for me was perfect. I could scale my compute capability with my current computational needs. What is also great is that as we didn’t have to outlay any capital investment in a particular architecture I could also change up the physical makeup of my cluster as required. I can set up a whole new cluster with just a few lines of script code.”
Add to all of that the fact that users are working in a familiar Microsoft environment, secure in the knowledge that what they do will be compatible with their other applications. So it’s not ‘Why use Azure?’ but, for me at least, ‘Why ever not?’