As its name and reputation suggest, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has been a pioneer in technological advancements throughout its 155-year history. The institute of higher learning, which is based in Cambridge, Massachusetts, counts the creation of electronic spreadsheets and the founding of the World Wide Web Consortium among the numerous advances its scholars and academics have contributed to science and technology.
It’s no surprise, then, that history has shown MIT’s own technology infrastructure to be leading edge. An SAP customer since its rollout of SAP R/3 in 1996, the Institute has been running its central administrative processes on the software for two decades. In fact, MIT was so ahead of the curve that it developed its own custom data warehouse to provide access to transactional SAP data before SAP had even created its enterprise warehouse.
Today, this forward-looking approach manifests itself in MIT’s adoption of and innovation with cloud technologies, which includes infrastructure support and maintenance.
“We have a cloud-first strategy,” says Eamon Kearns, Senior Director of the Emerging Solutions group at MIT’s Information Systems & Technology (IS&T) department. “Essentially, we want to get out of the business of running data centers that take up a lot of space and resources. Both are precious here, which is why we are actively moving that footprint off campus and freeing up those resources to work on high-value projects.”
A Cloud Footprint
MIT’s move to a cloud-based infrastructure included SAP software as a major component for multiple reasons. The Institute was already an SAP cloud customer of software-as-a-service (SaaS) applications from SuccessFactors and Concur, prior to their respective acquisitions by SAP. Perhaps equally important, the Institute had a keen interest in in-memory technology and knew the SAP HANA database would be the default platform for future SAP innovations, particularly in the cloud.
“For the past few years, we started to focus on what the future may hold,” says Kearns. “SAP has been clear that its future entails in-memory with some interesting innovations that include SAP S/4HANA. And so the decision was made to embrace these innovations.”
Essentially, we want to get out of the business of running data centers that take a lot of space and resources. Both are precious here, which is why we are actively moving that footprint off campus and freeing up those resources to work on high-value projects.
— Eamon Kearns, Senior Director of Emerging Solutions, IS&T, MIT
In July 2015, MIT undertook a five-month infrastructure “lift and shift,” moving off its non-SAP database onto SAP HANA and migrating its on-premise SAP ERP 6.0 instance to SAP managed services with SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud.
According to Kearns, this move was akin to “laying the foundation for the future, to set us up to take the next steps with in-memory and cloud technology.”
A Strategic Decision
With the move to the cloud, MIT accomplished its objective of freeing up resources that would otherwise be needed to procure and maintain hardware and to service its infrastructure. To accentuate this transition, the Emerging Solutions group (led by Kearns) was created with the goal of experimenting with new technologies to better meet the demand for a more seamless and integrated user experience. The goal, Kearns says, was to allow IS&T to become more strategic. “Everyone likes to talk about strategy,” he says, “But at the end of the day, the bread and butter of an IT department is making sure everything is running, and if email is down, it’s hard to have people focusing on both operations and strategy. Operational tasks always win, so we made the conscious decision to have a group focus on experimentation and trying new things.”
As the head of Emerging Solutions, exploring different ways to implement in-memory technology naturally falls under Kearns’s purview. Even as MIT transitioned its infrastructure onto SAP’s managed cloud environment, it knew that the move would essentially be a springboard for further enhancements with SAP HANA Cloud Platform, SAP’s platform-as-a-service (PaaS) solution developed for customers and partners to build, integrate, and extend new and existing business applications.
Improving the User Experience
Kearns views SAP HANA Cloud Platform as the vehicle to create a more personalized and consistent user experience (UX). End users no longer wanted to interact with inconsistent screens for various applications. SAP HANA Cloud Platform includes SAP Fiori, a design feature for creating a common user interface (UI) for native applications built on the cloud platform. This allowed IT to begin tackling the challenge of providing a common experience across different applications.
“With this, we saw a way for us to extend custom functionality on top of the core SAP products so that the experience can be more personalized and consistent,” says Kearns. “The reality for our community of diverse users is that it’s hard to just use a SaaS product and have it satisfy all our user needs. We’re always going to have to build customizations, and by taking this direction, we can build that consistent and seamless user experience.”
As a proof of concept, MIT put SAP’s cloud platform through its paces by developing a mobile app for benefits open enrollment. “We liked what we saw,” Kearns says, “It showed how we could successfully integrate our architectural landscape with SAP HANA Cloud Platform. Based on that, and some other early experiments, we decided to push forward with creating some production-ready apps.”
Its first app, scheduled for release in the first quarter of 2017, is designed to manage graduate student assignments. Many of MIT’s nearly 7,000 graduate students receive tuition or other funding for employment with MIT as research assistants or in another capacity, and the app will help the Institute administer this process. Because it will integrate with MIT’s student information and student account systems, administrators will be able to access the app to update and track all information relevant to grad student employment. Built natively on SAP HANA Cloud Platform, the app seamlessly integrates in real time with MIT’s SAP application in the SAP HANA Enterprise Cloud and also with a number of other non-SAP applications.
“It’s a big step forward because in the past most of our integrations were overnight batch runs,” Kearns says. “We hope that now other integrations will be real time. The first one is always the trickiest because you have to do a lot of the one-time setups and work out any unforeseen roadblocks.”
Becoming More Predictive
With real-time data exchanges now possible, Kearns says that MIT will also focus on big data and explore bringing more of a predictive analytics baseline into its environment, an objective that will include migrating the MIT data warehouse to the SAP HANA platform. “Once that is in place, and analytical and transactional data are in the same location, that will set us up in a better position for real-time data and analytics,” Kearns says.
A more consistent UX will also extend to what MIT expects will become a more mobile user community. With its new cloud environment, the Institute will adopt a mobile-first mentality, according to Kearns. “Some students want to do everything on their phones, and other community members might prefer to use a tablet,” he says. “That demand speaks to another big thing, which is that everything has to run on multiple devices and multiple browsers. We need our systems to provide that capability.”
While support for multiple devices was not the main driver behind its overall cloud project, it was a tangible benefit that MIT has realized in its comprehensive cloud journey. Another strong benefit for the Institute is having access to a platform on which to build and support applications on any device and seamlessly integrate them with core SAP applications in the cloud.
With this new foundation in place, IS&T can provide members of the MIT community with responsive administrative systems that truly address their diverse needs.