Ashi Sheth, director of IT, explains how American University of Sharjah is taking learning outside the classroom
Although a relative newcomer to the UAE’s academic scene, American University of Sharjah has grown rapidly to accommodate around 5200 students in its four different schools. Ashi Sheth, the university’s director of IT, has been with the organisation for just over seven of the 15 years it has been in existence.
Sheth joined the university in 2005 after four and a half years with an academic institution in California, prior to which he spent 11 years with a variety of private sector firms in the US. In his initial years at the university, he focused on consolidation of IT and putting in place a central roadmap for the organisation.
Now, with core systems consolidated, he and his team are embarking on a number of initiatives to take learning outside the classroom. These include desktop and application virtualisation and the recording of lectures to allow playback and review later on.
When Sheth arrived at AUS, there had been a high turnover of people in his position and a central IT strategy was lacking. IT was tending to being rolled out at a departmental level, with each school managing its own tech procurement.
That meant duplication of effort and a failure to adequately use bulk purchasing power. For example, two schools might buy their own separate licenses for the same product, failing to combine their purchasing power to obtain volume discounts. “We had excessive licenses and excessive servers, and we couldn’t use our bulk purchasing power,” Sheth explains.
One of his key early objectives, therefore, was to simplify and consolidate the university’s data centre. Out went SPARC Solaris servers and in came commodity machines running Linux. Storage was also consolidated, away from a lot of locally attached systems and one large SAN to a multi-protocol environment with redundancy and high availability.
The university’s mail platform was switched from a Sun system to the open source offering, Zimbra. Although not a household name, Zimbra is popular in education circles and, according to Sheth, provides up to 90% of the features of a commercial mail platform at 20% of the cost. Since it runs on Linux, it was also a straightforward switch for administrators accustomed to the previous Sun messaging platform.
Including students, applicants, alumni and faculty, the university is now running around 13,000 Zimbra mailboxes, making it one of the biggest Zimbra sites outside North America and Europe.
Despite the choice of Linux and Zimbra, Sheth says he is not an avowed believer in open source. “I feel I’m picking the right tool for the job,” he explains. “I’m practical, I don’t pick something just because everybody picks it.
“Picking something like Zimbra does have the potential for problems. It’s very easy to go out and find an Exchange administrator. It’s not as easy to find someone who’s even heard of Zimbra.”
In fact, when it was selecting its new mail platform, the university was very close to going with Google’s hosted messaging solution. Then, just as it was down to a final shortlist, international internet connectivity in the UAE was heavily disrupted when cables were sliced in the Mediterranean. “That turned us off a hosted solution,” Sheth says. Since then, both Etisalat and du have invested in more links to the international internet backbone and AUS may look at hosted messaging again in the future.