Anand Padmanabhan, Vice President and CIO at Fordham University, says Infrastructure as a Service has helped streamline the institution’s data center operations.

Feb 21 2023

HCI, IaaS Help Universities Simplify Infrastructure Management

Colleges and universities shift to Infrastructure as a Service and hyperconverged infrastructure to simplify and enhance their storage capabilities.

Simplicity has been Fordham University’s game plan for the past decade. Since shifting its enterprise resource planning system from its New York campus to Amazon Web Services in 2012, the school has moved about 85 percent of its infrastructure to cloud services.

“Like many higher education organizations, we were hosting it locally, taking care of all the data center needs for this system as well as the application, the upgrades, the maintenance, the disaster recovery,” says Anand Padmanabhan, vice president and CIO at Fordham. “From that point in time, a decision was made that for any new systems we brought on board, we’d see if it was possible to host it in the cloud first.”

A growing number of schools are following Fordham’s playbook by modernizing and, in turn, simplifying their data centers. There’s been an uptick in Infrastructure as a Service in higher education in the past year, with no signs of slowing down, as institutions strive to keep pace with a rapidly changing industry, says Matthew Leger, research manager at IDC Government Insights.

Some campuses have taken the next step, moving to a hyperconverged infrastructure, which integrates computing, storage and networking into one software-defined solution.

The benefits of both IaaS and HCI are hard to ignore, especially as schools adapt to the new normal of hybrid classrooms, growing cybersecurity threats and declining enrollments.

“You can also think about this in the context of extreme weather events, natural disasters, security incidents or other disruptions that may force institutions to move operations online at a moment’s notice,” Leger says. “Infrastructure as a Service enables continuity of operations, no matter what the world throws at higher education leaders.”

Click the banner below to receive curated cloud content by becoming an Insider.

IaaS Offers Several Benefits to Higher Education Institutions

In addition to scalability, IaaS offers greater manageability, enhanced security and seamless disaster recovery.

“I don’t have to spend a lot of time on DR, but if I needed to, with the flip of a switch, my systems would be up and running on the West Coast in Amazon’s data center,” Padmanabhan says.

Fordham, which uses AWS and Microsoft Azure cloud services, has been able to move infrastructure costs from capital expenses to operational expenses.

“And I don’t have to worry about maintenance,” Padmanabhan adds. In fact, he says, although IaaS isn’t inexpensive, it’s still less than the total cost of running systems on campus and paying for the power, cooling and staffing to maintain them.

Fordham has also moved most of its computer labs and printing services to the cloud.

“My goal is to reduce the footprint and give those spaces back for other academic needs,” Padmanabhan says. His team is looking to move its VoIP and audiovisual infrastructures to IaaS, go serverless in the cloud and implement a software-defined network that spans Fordham’s entire infrastructure.

“We’re actually in the midst of doing a proof of concept on managing the entire infrastructure using one pane of glass across our four campuses and our AWS and Azure infrastructures in the cloud,” he says.

His team is also looking into converting Fordham’s high-performance computing cluster to a hybrid infrastructure so it can scale up when researchers need more processing power but run longer-term, high-compute, high-IO projects onsite to keep costs down.

“One of my goals is to make it simple for users,” Padmanabhan says. In the past, users had to put in server requests to IT, which could take days or weeks to turn around. Now, they can access a menu to select their needs, and it’s ready within hours. “It automates the whole process,” he says.

EXPLORE: How institutions can meet demands for a modernized IT infrastructure.

HCI Is the Next Step in Higher Ed’s Infrastructure Journey

While hyperconverged infrastructure has gained steam in some industries, it’s still in its infancy in higher education, largely because of its cost. But HCI can make sense — and even save money — for institutions that are due for a major infrastructure refresh. That’s how Loras College and Texas A&M University-San Antonio joined the HCI ranks.

In 2016, Loras was looking to replace one of its two aging storage area networks, and it needed to upgrade a good portion of its 30-plus servers, explains Tom D. Kruse, chief information and budget officer at the college in Dubuque, Iowa. Hyperconvergence wasn’t even on their radar yet, but school officials discussed it on a trip to Lenovo’s product briefing center in Raleigh, N.C.

“It really opened our eyes,” Kruse recalls. “We paid less for the entire hyperconverged than we would have just for a SAN at the time.”

A&M-SA faced a similar situation. Its outdated, piecemeal infrastructure couldn’t hold anything else, but the university, founded in 2009, was growing rapidly. When IT weighed upgrading the infrastructure or replacing it with HCI, the costs were virtually the same.

“Why wouldn’t we go with something that’s more state-of-the-art? It’s a much better infrastructure, it’s a stable infrastructure, and it’s a scalable infrastructure,” explains William Griffenberg, CIO and associate vice president of IT at A&M-SA. “That’s really important to a young university like ours. We can’t waste a dime.”

Matthew Leger
Infrastructure as a Service enables continuity of operations, no matter what the world throws at higher education leaders.”

Matthew Leger Research Lead, IDC Government Insights: Worldwide Education Digital Strategies

As an early adopter of HCI, the Loras team was nervous about the unknown but appreciated the simplicity of having storage directly on the servers.

“One of the best advantages of hyperconverged is that now we have one system,” Kruse says. “You don’t call up your SAN vendor and tell them you have an issue only to have them point back at your hardware vendors.”

Working with one vendor has also simplified the college’s cybersecurity policies and planning. “Just fewer points of concern,” he adds.

A&M-SA went with Dell EMC for the servers and storage, managed with VMware, but opted for Cisco routers, switches and firewalls.

“We were trying to do a lot of things at the same time. We were bringing the student information system in-house from the cloud, and this system allowed us to do that with the greatest speed,” Griffenberg explains.

LEARN ABOUT: How higher ed can keep up with evolving data environments.

Data Center Modernization Helps Universities Future Proof

Loras still runs 30 to 40 servers, but most are virtual, running on VMware.

“It’s amazing what our operating center looks like compared to what it used to,” Kruse says. “The room seems bare.”

And it’s cooler. “We used to have a hard time maintaining the temperature when we were running so many servers. There are now only three physical boxes,” he says.

HCI is also easier to manage. Loras’s on-premises infrastructure always faced some sort of outage, Kruse says. “The server would crash, or there’d be an issue with the backup storage. Something was always going on.”


The percentage of higher education institutions using Infrastructure as a Service, up from 42% in 2021

Source:, “Industry CloudPath 2022,” April 2022

Now, it’s rare for IT to have to handle an after-hours situation. A&M-SA hasn’t had an outage since implementing HCI in 2019.

“We now have two entry points with two different vendors bringing our internet in, so if we lose one, the system is designed to self-heal. Traffic just goes out the other one,” Griffenberg says.

He sees HCI becoming more mainstream along with artificial intelligence.

“The world is going to change, and when that happens, your infrastructure’s going to have to change to meet those demands,” he says.

Photo by Guerin Blask

Learn from Your Peers

What can you glean about security from other IT pros? Check out new CDW research and insight from our experts.