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CALS websites migrating to the “cloud”

CALS IT provides websites for CALS administration, including www.cals.wisc.edu and all its subdomains, and numerous CALS departments and researchers as well, totaling about 200 websites. On the evening of Oct 17, 2016, the first contingent of those websites started moving off the CALS hardware in the basement of campus’ Computer Science Building into the internet “cloud.” The rest of the websites managed by CALS IT are slated to make the same migration over the coming months.

Planning for this migration started two years ago, as part of a CALS IT strategy to modernize services and reduce costs. Some of the hardware owned by CALS administration was aging out and would require significant purchases for replacement. So the choice was either to replace the hardware or to replace its function with cloud services. Cloud services also allow computing costs to be annualized and to scale up (or down) smoothly, rather than in increments of additional server purchases. CALS IT opted to pursue the cloud option, and the transition has been remarkably smooth.

CALS’ cloud migration effort has been led by Jason Pursian, assistant CALS IT director and information security officer, and Al Nemec, lead CALS web developer and coordinator. They are also in the process of founding a WordPress “Cloud Consortium” involving two other campus colleges, a group that will help pool web knowledge and resources and will provide more depth of personnel, without adding more positions.

So what is the “cloud,” exactly? Without getting technical, it is largely the notion that clients aren’t concerned about the location of their computer hardware and don’t want to be responsible for the nuts and bolts of power, cooling, hardware replacement, etc. The new cloud-based CALS web content and server cluster, for instance, are located 2,000 miles away in Amazon’s ‘green’ facilities, which are housed in two separate hardware zones with independent power, cooling and networking, so that there is both redundancy and failover capability. Even the servers are ‘virtual machines’, shifting their function smoothly among long rows of racked hardware, with distant clients blithely unaware exactly which machine or set of machines is providing service at any given moment. If a computer were to suddenly expire, its functions would automatically shift to the others and the dead computer might not be serviced or replaced until scheduled. Even tech giants like NetFlix use cloud services as an economical alternative to owning their own servers and running their own data centers.

Here’s a brief summary of CALS’ transition to the cloud, to date: It started when a server cluster named Triforce (as an homage to the Legend of Zelda, a Nintendo favorite among many techies) was created in local hardware that mimicked some of the functionality of a server cluster in the cloud. From that point, new CALS websites were built on Triforce as testing continued. Starting in March 2016, a CALS account in the Amazon cloud was set up under the auspices of the UW-Madison Chief Information Officer’s office as part of the CIO’s vision of “cloud first,” and load testing of the cloud services was undertaken. Finally, regular Amazon cloud services became available to the UW-Madison in September through state contract and CALS IT became the third campus customer. After additional testing, CALS IT made a silent transition of Triforce contents off of hardware and into the cloud, transferring website information and waiting anxiously to hear from its clients. The move was met with silence, the perfect response. Over the next couple of weeks, we began to hear from our developer clients that their websites seemed faster.

We expect the remaining locally-hosted CALS websites to experience a similar, seamless transition to the cloud.

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