International case studies are always good to review, because sometimes you see things that aren't being done in Australia, and give useful ideas for solving problems for Australian education institutions. Of course, many international education organisations run in a very different way to Australian ones, but the underlying business problems can be very similar. Sometimes organisations take a more commercial approach (something that often comes up in projects involving CRM and BI in education)

University of Washington logoFor example, I've just finished reading a Business Intelligence case study from the University of Washington, who have developed a system to help their university staff more easily connect with donors and potential donors, by using the cloud services of Windows Azure to take their existing SQL-based reporting system and moving it into the cloud. It's a very practical case study for business intelligence in education.

Moving university reporting to the cloud

Three years ago, the University of Washington (UW) developed a self-service reporting application called Michelangelo that helps users access the university’s databases and then quickly and easily create accurate reports. With the growing popularity of - and outside interest in - its application, UW met the challenge of increased demand by moving Michelangelo from an on-premises environment to Windows Azure in the cloud. Now, the university can scale the application on demand to support as many users as needed, including potentially giving outside educational and other research organisations access to Michelangelo. Thanks to cloud infrastructure resources managed by Microsoft, UW is also able to reduce hardware, labour, and maintenance requirements for Michelangelo.

UW often needs to create lists of alumni based on their location, degree earned, donation history, and so on, as part of the university’s fundraising efforts. Historically, compiling lists like these at UW has been a slow (up to two weeks) manual process that includes a lot of technical steps. As a result, it has often required assistance from a database programmer or administrator.

Five years ago, to make this task easier, UW developed Michelangelo—a self-service reporting application that works with an ordinary web browser and requires no customised client software. Michelangelo offers an intuitive interface for accessing key data, filtering the data by wide-ranging criteria, and delivering the results to a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet for convenient analysis. At UW, Michelangelo draws data from their customer relationship management (CRM) system using SQL Server, although the application is designed to support almost any structured data source.

By 2010, the reporting application had become quite popular, used by several UW departments and attracting the attention of outside organisations, including North Carolina State University and the University of California, Davis. As Chris Sorensen, Associate Director of Reporting said:

 

The time had come to determine what technologies we would need for Michelangelo to support perhaps 500 users and many more data sets. Simply adding more servers and storage did not make sense for us from a capital investment and labour perspective.

We chose Windows Azure because it has the combination of scalability, reliability, and strong security that we were looking for.

 

UW also used the flexible federated authentication capabilities in Windows Azure, meaning that they could use their existing identity systems to protect the information in the reports, using the rules for access to data sets based on the users' job role.

The migration was completed in 2011, and was their first application to be moved from their on-premise infrastructure to Windows Azure, and they regard it as a model for migrating future applications.

What benefits did they see?

As well as lowering both short-term and long-term IT costs, the university are also seeing improvements in IT staff productivity. As Chris Sorensen said:

  What we really liked about the migration was that it decreased our management time for Michelangelo. With Windows Azure, we no longer have to deploy our own resources for things like internal system uptime, maintaining firewalls, or deciding what machines to partition or what virtual instances to provision. That’s all taken care of at a Microsoft data centre.  

Users benefitted from improvements in the application's speed, with all of the relational database information held in memory. And for the University of Washington, it means that they are able to expand the use of Michelangelo to outside institutions and users, using federated authentication.

The Michelangelo team have created a video of Michelangelo in action (warning: if you're in an Australian university, your alumni/donor management team may start to make more demands for easy access to data if they see this!)

Learn MoreYou can read the full case study on microsoft.com/casestudies

There's also a website for the Michelangelo system here