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Berklee Online embraces cloud management system

Berklee Online CTO discusses building application and data integration through a cloud management system.

At his workplace, Luke Stevens, CTO of Berklee Online (BO), hears good music often -- and not through his earbuds. While BO is an online continuing education (CE) program, Stevens works on the Boston campus of BO's parent, Berklee College of Music. There, the halls are alive with the sound of music, while he builds and architects a cloud management system.

"As an amateur musician and a nonstudent myself, it's a good vibe at Berklee," Stevens said. "It's a good place to be, and a lot of folks in the office here play music together." 

In recent projects, Stevens is using cloud- and API-based application and data integration tools on Amazon Web Services (AWS) infrastructure as a service to harmonize online degree management systems and connectivity with the college's brick-and-mortarboard systems. He describes his IT beginnings, as well as BO's application and data integration, user experience and load balancing projects, and its move from on premises to cloud computing in this article.

Remember the Commodore 64?

Stevens started working as a software developer in 1999. "My first gig was converting a database to make it Y2K compatible," Stevens said.

Luke Stevens, CTO, Berklee College of Music OnlineLuke Stevens

Stevens' interest in software goes back a ways. Developers, does this sound familiar? "My dad brought home a Commodore 64 in the '80s, and I used to play with that -- mostly games," he said. Next, he got some basic programing books. When he was seven, he copied line by line of code, even though he had no idea what the code did. He recalls copying programs out of Run, a now-defunct magazine about Commodore home computers.

Stevens started at Berklee College of Music about five years ago as a Web software developer and moved to CTO a year and a half ago. He oversees "all the technology stuff," that being online course delivery systems, business systems support, as well as homegrown and third-party database integrations. Also, BO has its own admissions, marketing and technology systems. All systems run in the cloud management system, AWS cloud.

App glut woes

Stevens' biggest pain point as CTO stems from a more universal view of data. "We're managing more systems than we used to, and understanding data as an ecosystem rather than as a single piece of software has been a real, new challenge," he said. For example, Stevens managed the rollout of catalog and support systems for BO's online bachelor's degree program, a big addition to its previous offering of 12-week CE courses.

Rather than building a new bachelor's degree program system, Stevens decided to use the college's legacy Ellucian Colleague ERP system. Colleague is a suite of education-focused applications, such as for managing students' class credits and financial aid. "We began integrating our legacy online course applications with theirs to get those key pieces to support online degrees," Stevens said.

Streamlining application and data integration processes had been on Stevens' agenda since he became CTO in 2014. At that time, a BO developer could spend a month writing data integration code to get data out of one system and into another. Application integration went just as slowly.

The cloud route to app integration

Stevens decided there must be a better way and began evaluating third-party application integration tools. After a pilot program, he chose Jitterbit for its Harmony integration platform's speed of implementation, ease-of-use, breadth of tools and sturdy API gateways. Jitterbit's compatibility with Berklee College of Music's Salesforce and Colleague implementations sealed the deal. "Jitterbit stood out as a way for us to bridge partnerships" between cloud application providers, he said.

Emulating the physical server infrastructure into the cloud won't get you all of those cloud benefits. It will just move your server.
Luke StevensCTO, Berklee College of Music Online

That success with Jitterbit for application integration led to using the vendor for data integration. With the help of Jitterbit's training and support, data integration was completed quickly and Stevens' team rolled out the bachelor's degree program courses on time.

"We've migrated all of our existing integrations into Jive Harmony platform, and we are in an intense R&D phase with Jitterbit's new Harmony Live release," Stevens said.

Less DIY in-house, except for UI

Building application and data integration tools in-house was not an option. "We used to have a build-everything-ourselves mentality," he said. Often, developers customized open source applications. "Today, we're sunsetting some of those older systems and moving new projects toward third-party [applications] to get business support and back-end infrastructure."

BO's in-house development is focused on user experience. Of course, a user interface (UI) for online classes must be easy to use; but a UI for bachelor's degrees must help students navigate complex interactions, including credit requirements for their major, class prerequisites and multiyear financial aid.

"We're building the new online user experience on top of an open source platform, but we'll be building the entire Web student interface stuff ourselves," Stevens said.

As much cloud as possible

BO's applications and UIs run as instances on AWS. Over the last five years, physical servers at the college have been decommissioned. "We got out of having to worry about hardware support and commoditized as much of our infrastructure as we could," Stevens said. "That lines up with our overall goal of not building anything that other people have already built."

Using the latest AWS cloud management system technologies has been "huge" for BO in terms of costs, developer skills, disaster recovery, elasticity of the infrastructure and more, Stevens said. "The cloud allows us to manage our systems with a pretty lean team and not spend a ton of time having to invent new ways to do this stuff."

Next on Stevens' already-full agenda is structuring applications in clusters, so that BO has multiple AWS instances, or virtual servers, of every application running. With load balancing, BO will have multiple boxes running each piece of software.

"That means if we hit high traffic, we can just add more instances. Or, if one instance goes down, it comes out of the group and another one takes its place," Stevens said. To get this model, Stevens said, his team and partners have to build from the ground up. "Emulating the physical server infrastructure into the cloud won't get you all of those cloud benefits. It will just move your server."

With connected applications and data, a user-friendly UI and accessibility even at peak traffic times, Stevens and his development team are making sure that no student who wants to enroll in or get information about BO classes gets left behind.

Next Steps

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