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Hurricane-tested: Why Houston’s Lone Star college system was prepared when COVID-19 hit

The sprawling community college system uses Oracle Cloud Observability and Management platform to keep its campus solutions ready for anything.


By Jeff Erickson | January 2021


In hindsight, Link Alander thinks life on Houston’s gulf coast has a lot to do with why Lone Star College, the city’s 93,000-student community college system, has weathered COVID-19 reasonably well.

“Coming into COVID, we’ve already tested our IT service continuity plans too many times,” says Alander, Lone Star College’s vice chancellor for college services/CIO. The category 4 Hurricane Harvey in August 2017, for example, “knocked out our Kingwood campus completely.”

When COVID came, Lone Star College quickly moved its operations and classes online for nearly all of its 93,000 students across seven campuses. In the fall of 2020, though its buildings across northern Houston were nearly empty, school enrollment was down only 5%, compared to a national average decrease of nearly 10% across community college institutions, according to Inside Higher Ed.

Link Alander (left), CIO and vice chancellor for college services, Lone Star College and Longin Gogu, associate vice chancellor for enterprise applications, Lone Star College

Link Alander (left), CIO and vice chancellor for College Services at Lone Star College, works with Longin Gogu, associate vice chancellor for Enterprise Applications, to keep the college’s digital systems humming.

Lone Star College students have been able to move academic life online: checking course catalogs, conferring with advisors, registering for class, paying tuition, and attending online learning programs. And they did so in hundreds of fields of study, from accounting to nursing to cybersecurity, even as the number of online users shot up to unprecedented levels.

Alander’s passion for the school’s mission is widely felt across Lone Star, fueling a determination to keep classes going. “With us, you can finish a program or a certificate that gets your foot in the door to a new job or a career, or gets you ready to transfer to a four-year institution,” says Alander. “That’s our ambition. Whatever factors have kept someone back, it doesn’t matter, we can get you in and help you set up a learning path to get you moving in a new direction.”

Continuing education

Lone Star College’s mission increasingly runs on digital services, and that was true even before COVID-19 hit. Longin Gogu, Lone Star College’s associate vice chancellor for enterprise applications, has helped drive that shift, leading the team that manages the technology underpinning the majority of the school’s programs. Gogu was part of the emergency response team at University of New Orleans in 2005 when Hurricane Katrina hit: “That experience gives you a different perspective when it comes to planning the preparedness.”

Because the Gulf Coast endures hurricane season every year, he says, “our entire operation is structured in such a way that we have a continuous preparedness plan. No matter the circumstances, we can still continue to ensure that students and the college overall has access to services” that work seamlessly whether on a phone, tablet, or laptop.

A cornerstone of that plan is investing in enterprise-grade technology systems and then constantly exploring what they can do for you. Lone Star College teamed up with Oracle to run PeopleSoft products—Campus Solutions, Human Capital Management, Financial Supply Chain Management, Enterprise Learning Management, and Interaction Hub as well as Oracle Hyperion for budgeting and planning. The applications run in two on-premises data centers and are overseen and managed using Oracle Cloud Observability and Management Platform, which also helps Lone Star manage its application infrastructure and some third-party systems.

Know thyself

Know Thyself, a Greek phrase you might hear in Western Civ class, is just as apt for computer science or information systems. Longin’s IT team lives the adage in two ways: They employ cloud-based tools to peer deeply into their application infrastructure to understand what it’s doing moment to moment, and they set aside time to learn the full capabilities of what their Oracle software can do.

 

“There are very few institutions that have their data center operations and their infrastructure operations aligned and working like clockwork. That’s how it is at Lone Star College.”

Longin Gogu, Associate Vice Chancellor for Enterprise Applications, Lone Star College

Longin’s team is hungry to share their explorations of Oracle software with internal customers and other tech professionals. Lone Star College staff frequently present for the Higher Ed User Group, and have been honored three times by Oracle as an Innovator of the Year. “We have built a reputation for quality of service on campus, and for pushing the envelope in a small village” that is the passionate higher-ed tech community, Gogu says.

Gogu’s team uses Oracle Cloud Observability and Management cloud services to keep tabs on their collection of technologies and fix problems before users notice.

Recently introduced to take advantage of Oracle’s next-generation cloud infrastructure, Oracle Cloud Observability and Management Platform communicates with all parts of the college’s sprawling on-premises data center infrastructure: servers, networks, app servers, virtual machines, microservices, applications, cloud services, and database management software. It uses machine learning to monitor the activity and relationships among them, and even tracks a student’s digital experience as she explores, registers, checks tuition balances, and other tasks so the IT team can pinpoint technical glitches or understand where a user interface is confusing for students.

“We’re committed to somewhere between one and two seconds for a page to load,” Gogu says. For an institution of Lone Star College’s size, “that requires some horsepower and infrastructure to enable it.” Lone Star College runs 64 app servers and 48 web servers just for the PeopleSoft student solution, says Gogu. The college runs many more for its finance, HR, budgeting and planning, and other services, resulting in the deployment of hundreds of VMs and servers. The Oracle deployment is “so big even Oracle people have had to ask twice if that is really the sizing.” Plus, the college operates simultaneously across two data centers: “That way, we have pretty much almost instant failover for continuous operation and it’s a very short blip that end users may not even notice,” Gogu says.

Fine-tuning a student’s online journey or helping a complex IT system adjust to disruption are similar to challenges in other industries where Oracle Observability and Management is used, such as in real estate, medical devices, retail, and robotics.

Lone Star College offers classes in hundreds of areas of study.

Lone Star College offers classes in hundreds of areas of study.

When Gogu’s team first moved to an Oracle Cloud-based observability and management solution, “we were able to identify issues in the system that are subtle and see what happens when you click that button on that page,” he says. By seeing that end-to-end lifecycle of a transaction, “we discovered things that we could have never thought of,” such as when students were accidently saving live transaction pages from their browser. “We couldn’t replicate the problem, because in our system everything works fine,” he says. After setting up the Oracle Cloud service, “suddenly we were able to watch how users were accessing pages and saw that they were trying to source our web pages from their own hard drives.”

Gogu’s team is now looking at other ways Oracle Cloud Infrastructure can help improve services, such as exploring the benefits of running Peoplesoft in Oracle Cloud or subscribing to planning and budgeting as a service.

Improving Lone Star College services holds real meaning to Gogu. “We just want to let students pursue their academic pathways and goals that they have set for themselves,” he says.

Quod Erat Demonstrandum (Q.E.D)

Whether it’s a hurricane, a pandemic, or something else, Alander wants his school to be ready. “We’re constantly going to go from one change to another, to another, and we just have to get good at it,” he says. “The good news is, we’ve had a great relationship with Oracle.”

Delivering that flexibility takes a clear and always up-to-date understanding of the computing infrastructure that runs those operations. “There are very few institutions that have their data center operations and their infrastructure operations aligned and working like clockwork. That’s how it is at Lone Star College,” Gogu says. “I definitely consider it a privilege to be part of it.”

Photography: Lone Star College
Illustrations: Oracle

jeff erickson

Jeff Erickson

Jeff Erickson is director of tech content at Oracle. You can follow him on Twitter at @erickson4.