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Cloud computing services helped Westmont College rise from the ashes

Westmont College turned to cloud computing services to help recover from a fire that destroyed 20 buildings. The services integrate CRM data with the school's back-end ERP system.

Reed Sheard had been vice president and CIO at Westmont College for a month when a huge fire ripped through the...

campus in Santa Barbara, Calif., destroying 20 buildings. As he stood amid the smoldering ashes, Sheard considered cloud computing services as a way to move forward.

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The challenge was as much one of personnel as it was technological. For one thing, Westmont didn't have a customer relationship management (CRM) system, and its IT staff of 19 people didn't have the bandwidth to manage one, according to Sheard. "They were working almost nonstop just keeping things running, and confidence in IT was degrading," he acknowledged. With the downturn in the economy, hiring new people wasn't an option -- and the high cost of living in Santa Barbara precluded luring talent from outside the immediate area, he said.

As he looked toward rebuilding after the November 2008 fire, Sheard realized that mobile technologies would be used to gather data during interviews with donors who could help the college. The trick would be integrating that data from handheld devices into Westmont's back-end ERP system. "If the information wasn't in our ERP, we'd have broken a huge opportunity," he said.

Then Sheard went to a conference about the cloud in San Francisco, and a light bulb went on: He said he understood how cloud computing services could enable the college to integrate the mobile data with the ERP system, and realized that he could retrain some staff members to manage the cloud services. He chose San Francisco-based Inc. 's CRM offering, and contracted with Mountain View, Calif.-based Cast Iron Systems Inc. -- which was recently purchased by IBM -- to write a Web API that sits between Westmont's ERP system and the mobile devices used by its fundraising team.

To date, Westmont has raised $102 million to fund a new science building, an art gallery and an athletic complex, the first new buildings in 25 years. The fundraising team plans to contact and meet with 100,000 more potential donors during the next 14 months.

Integrated data enables modular cloud computing services

Westmont's strategy is a good model for many businesses, according to Jeff Kaplan, founder of ThinkStrategies Inc., a consultancy in Wellesley, Mass. Kaplan cites data integration as one of the top three concerns among IT and business decision makers who are thinking about migrating to the cloud -- other factors include security and reliability. The integration tools sector has been very competitive, with Boomi Inc., Cast Iron Systems, Workday Inc.'s Cape Clear, Hubspan Inc., Informatica Corp. and Pervasive Software Inc. recognized as leaders. But Cast Iron Systems has differentiated itself around its modular 'appliance' approach to cloud integration, and has established strong working relationships with Google Inc. and, Kaplan said.

In a relatively short amount of time, we were able to bring the integration tool in and quickly get to the point where it's bringing value to the college.
Reed Sheard
vice president and CIOWestmont College
That module approach allowed Westmont, for example, to support a global positioning system that lets students know the location of the college shuttle and request a pickup -- an important application because they aren't allowed cars. Another appliance helps the college filter spam. "In a relatively short amount of time, we were able to bring the integration tool in and quickly get to the point where it's bringing value to the college," Sheard said. All this and security, too, which is built into the Cast Iron software: "The counterintuitive truth is that our data is actually more secure in our cloud structure than it was without it," he said.

Westmont's biggest cloud work has been in the wireless space to address "huge dissatisfaction" with wireless capabilities at the school, Sheard said. New cloud-based controllers provide fast Wi-Fi speeds indoors and outdoors. It used to be a pain to manage the enterprise-wide Wi-Fi, he said, but now applications can locate the controllers in the cloud and download connections.

Westmont standardized on Apple Inc.'s iPhone as the personal digital assistant of choice. In February 2009, Sheard counted 42 iPhones that students and faculty members were using on campus; a year later, students registered 720 iPhones to access the email, calendar and contacts enabled by the data integration system. "It works," Sheard said, explaining the spike. "And if it works, usage takes off."

The college has completed five major cloud computing deployments in 13 months with no new staff and no increase in budget. Instead, the IT department "got rid of old stuff, took the money, and now it's a subscription fee," Sheard explained. He restructured the IT department, eliminating the systems administrator position and hiring a full-time mobile and Web interface developer. "Our focus has turned to software," he said.

A second fire crept up the hill to the campus in May 2009. A nearby homeowner was trying to clear-cut brush away from his home, and the chainsaw hit a rock and sparked. This time, there was no damage to the college's infrastructure, and Sheard said he rested easy knowing the cloud had put IT operations in a better position to cope with future disasters.

"We've delivered a few things in a short period of time to bring us in step," he said. "Now, we've had a few wins, and maybe we'll have a few more, and as a CIO, that's a very good thing for a very good team."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Laura Smith, Features Writer.

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