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ICES: Simplifying admin processes so university staff can focus on the student experience

About ICES

Located in the Vendée region of western France, ICES is a private catholic university with around 1,500 French and international students. It prides itself on working closely with each individual student to achieve their professional aims.

Industries: Education
Location: France

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About Zenika

Software architecture expert Zenika is passionate about using technology to build a simpler, more open, and accessible world.

Using Google Kubernetes Engine, Zenika built a unified, flexible IT system for ICES that automates administrative tasks, saving time for employees so they can focus on supporting students.

Google Cloud results

  • Automates tasks such as mail-outs to save time for administrators who can then focus on supporting students
  • Scales flexibly to meet peaks in demand throughout the academic year
  • Helps administrative departments work together as a team to support students from enrollment to examinations, even during COVID-19
  • Responds to changing needs quickly thanks to flexible testing environments and continuous deployment

Automates examination admin, saving three weeks of work

Campus or city? Private or public? Students selecting a university can choose between an ever-increasing variety of institutions, so it's important for universities to have a unique appeal to attract the best applicants. For ICES, the Catholic University of the Vendée, one of its key selling points is the personal experience that it offers. It's a small private university located in western France with a student population of around 1,500, and its mission is to create a spirit of cooperation between staff and students. For example, its masters-level classes are limited to 35 participants, fostering a high level of engagement between professors and students.

Founded in 1990 as a "university school" that combines small class sizes with an ambitious academic program, it offers undergraduate and graduate courses in nine core areas of study, including Catholic studies, history, and law. "Academic excellence is definitely one of our strengths," says Frédéric Braems, CTO at ICES. "We have an undergraduate course completion rate of around 80%, which compares very favorably with the average state university completion rate of around 50%."

"We were very interested in Zenika's proposal using Google Cloud, because it offers the possibility of continuous development. We need to be able to adapt from one day to the next, because the end goal is always delivering the best possible student experience."

Frédéric Braems, CTO, ICES

To keep up with evolving student demands, ICES is expanding its offering to include more choices within course options. That means its administrative departments need to manage increasingly complex data workflows. To cope with the increased complexity while maintaining a good quality of service, it needed a more agile IT system to simplify the management of admissions, invoicing, and examinations.

Working together with ICES, software development consultant Zenika developed a new platform to make it easier to access and share data, so administrators can focus on value-added tasks. The result is Happ'ICES, a new IT infrastructure for ICES built on Google Cloud.

"We were very interested in Zenika's proposal using Google Cloud, because it offers the possibility of continuous development," explains Frédéric. "We need to be able to adapt from one day to the next, because the end goal is always delivering the best possible student experience.”

Unifying services to manage student information better

ICES has around 600 rotating academic staff and 50 permanent employees, 70% of whom serve administrative functions. Other than an external agent that looks after hardware maintenance, Frédéric is responsible for all IT services at the university. Three years ago, following an audit, he realized ICES' on-premises IT system was no longer answering the needs of its staff and students and didn't offer the flexibility needed to adapt for the future.

"We were in danger of getting stuck with a system that didn't work for us," he explains. "Different departments were using separate systems that didn't communicate well with one another, and some of the applications were unreliable." That meant staff needed to spend time responding to requests for information, and Frédéric had to intervene when things went wrong. "We needed a new way to automate our data management and create intuitive workflows, from first contact to admissions through to exam administration," says Frédéric.

To replace this fragmented system, ICES wanted a single platform that could be used by all the administrative services and that would answer their individual needs. Following a call for proposals, ICES chose Zenika's proposition using Google Cloud, partly because it was already using other Google tools. "ICES was already using Google for Education on campus, so it made sense for us to build the system on Google Cloud," explains Valentin Cocaud, a consultant at Zenika. "It was a choice that we were immediately comfortable with," agrees Frédéric.

"We chose Google Kubernetes Engine as the orchestration solution, because scalability is an important factor. For example, there are times when ICES needs to generate PDFs and print 1,500 invoices at a time. With Google Kubernetes Engine, we have the power to scale up and down within seconds."

Valentin Cocaud, Consultant, Zenika

Building a system that can scale to meet annual academic peaks

In order to understand the needs of the different administrative departments, Zenika carried out workshops over a period of two weeks. "We realized that they served quite different roles and needed a separate frontend application and interface for each service," explains Valentin. "That meant we could unify the data, but still provide a tailored experience for each department."

To do that, Zenika chose to build the new system using a microservices architecture on Kubernetes, using Google Kubernetes Engine (GKE) as its orchestration solution. It uses Cloud SQL to manage PostgreSQL databases, Cloud Storage to store student photos and other documents, as well as Pub/Sub for provisioning tasks such as invoicing. "We chose Google Kubernetes Engine as the orchestration solution, because scalability is an important factor," explains Valentin. "For example, there are times when ICES needs to generate PDFs and print 1,500 invoices at once. With Google Kubernetes Engine, we have the power to scale up and down within seconds."

Zenika started with developing the application for student services to manage prospective student data. "It took three months to develop the first version of the application, and they started using it in parallel with their previous system," says Valentin. "After six months of development, all of the administrative staff switched to the new system."

"With the new system on Google Cloud, we have eliminated numerous manual processes, so staff can focus on supporting students rather than on administration. For example, by automating the transfer of examination marks, we've eliminated a task that previously took three weeks, as well as making that process more reliable."

Frédéric Braems, CTO, ICES

Developing new features dynamically, to meet changing demands

In order to respond to the changing needs within departments and adapt each dedicated application throughout the academic year, Zenika is continuously developing and improving Happ'ICES.

"Using Google Cloud gives us the agility that we need, because we can have parallel development and production environments and push new features into production as soon as they're ready," explains Valentin. "That's really important, because the university calendar is fixed with strict deadlines, so we have to work within those constraints." Administrative staff can test out new features before they move into preproduction, to make sure they correspond to their needs.

Working as a team to offer a better student experience

Thanks to Happ'ICES, it's now much easier for administrative services to work together. "With the new system on Google Cloud, we have eliminated numerous manual processes, so staff can focus on supporting students rather than on administration," says Frédéric. "For example, by automating the transfer of examination marks, we've eliminated a task that previously took three weeks, as well as making that process more reliable."

And because employees can now access applications from outside the campus, they were able to keep working during the COVID-19 pandemic workplace restrictions. "Thankfully, because of the new system, the administrators were able to manage the admissions process and examination administration from their own homes," says Frédéric. "Without it, this would have been very difficult."

The next step for Zenika is to move the Happ'ICES frontend applications to App Engine. "We're also going to move the backend services onto Cloud Run, and start using Cloud Scheduler to manage batch tasks," says Valentin. The remaining on-premises databases will also be moved to Google Cloud. "We're planning to extend the number of options available within courses at ICES even further, so it's important to have the flexibility to scale,” says Frédéric.

The biggest gain for him, however, has been the growth in team spirit since implementing the solution. "Since bringing together our different services on Google Cloud, people have realized they are part of one team," says Frédéric. "Beyond improving the management of individual processes, we now have a single unified workflow, and that means everyone communicates better."

Tell us your challenge. We're here to help.

Contact us

About ICES

Located in the Vendée region of western France, ICES is a private catholic university with around 1,500 French and international students. It prides itself on working closely with each individual student to achieve their professional aims.

Industries: Education
Location: France

About Zenika

Software architecture expert Zenika is passionate about using technology to build a simpler, more open, and accessible world.