Data Analytics Takes the Field at Oregon State University
Microsoft Power BI and SharePoint, supported by Dell EMC storage, deliver customized, data-driven insights that help coaches and players improve training and performance.
At many universities, the idea that the IT professionals on staff could have a dramatic impact on the school’s athletics program is novel, to say the least. Install a new printer for the athletics department or troubleshoot the network? That’s where IT makes a difference — not in fine-tuning athletes’ development or helping coaches perfect training regimens.
Until early 2017, that was the thinking at Oregon State University. Then the new athletics director, Scott Barnes, unveiled an early draft of his five-year strategic plan. The OSU IT team, he suggested, could be far more valuable than many people realized.
In professional sports, Barnes noted, teams employed IT staff to collect and manage data. In fact, data analytics was rapidly emerging as a must-have tool to optimize player performance. OSU would follow their lead, Barnes said, searching for opportunities to incorporate data in intercollegiate athletics.
Oregon State Athletics Rethinks Traditional IT
Not long before Barnes came to campus, OSU Athletics hired Tim De Quilettes as the IT director on the Data and Media Infrastructure Team.
“When I got here,” he recalls, “we were mostly just seen as the ‘fitters and turners.’ We had a very traditional IT support role and it didn’t include data analytics.”
Barnes’ vision changed everything, says De Quilettes, and he began asking coaches how his department might be able to help.
“We quickly evolved into a kind of R&D think tank where our primary role, at least in that initial stage, involved getting the coaches and their support staff to dream about what might be possible,” he says. “We’d say, ‘If you were able to garner this data or if you had these technologies at your fingertips, what are some of the things you’d want to see provided to you that would help you to enhance your program?’”
Their responses were as varied as the teams themselves. The baseball team’s pitching staff wanted data that could help determine which pitcher to start when. Rowing coaches were curious about the power their athletes generated with each stroke and how that fluctuated based on water currents. And many coaches wanted a way to view the data they already had — on nutrition plans or workout results, for example — in ways that made the information more usable.
De Quilettes remembers thinking that his team would need to develop customized solutions for each coach’s goals.
“We had our work cut out for us,” he says. “It was clear we were kind of breaking new ground with the scope and scale of this initiative — that we were trying to do something that had never been done before.”
Dell and Microsoft Solutions Power Up New Data Initiative
Earlier in his career, De Quilettes had collaborated with CDW in the medical arena, so he decided to reach out to the company again.
He launched the project with help from CDW Field Account Executive Benton VanWormer and Executive Account Manager Lance McMillan. OSU student Ana Nolan joined the project through a CDW internship.
“Lance and I focused on making all of this a reality within the constraints of their very low budget, while Ana did a lot of the outreach around campus, raising awareness about the initiative and drumming up support,” says VanWormer.
One major challenge was finding a way to pull data from disparate environments, whether the baseball field, the football team’s weight room or student dining halls and dormitories. In addition, any data collection solution would need to work seamlessly with the software products of various third-party vendors: the radar gun that records athletes’ pitch speed, for example, and the GPS units that soccer players wear in training.
The solution would also need a powerful analytics component to provide coaches with insights they couldn’t get otherwise. And finally, given the sheer size of the analytics projects the team had in mind, they would need their own onsite data center.
“None of this was going to be possible without a place to host the data coming in,” De Quilettes says.
Working closely with CDW, the OSU team solved its hosting dilemma by adding a Dell EMC Unity 300 hybrid flash storage system to its existing Isilon infrastructure.
On the data aggregation and analytics front, the team chose two solutions from Microsoft. SharePoint, Microsoft’s online collaborative platform, would support much of the data collection, and Power BI, the cloud-based business analytics tool, would filter and process that data — and help to build dashboards for reports and visualization.
All along the way, CDW facilitated conversations and solutions that helped OSU move its innovative project forward.
Like most universities, OSU had an existing licensing agreement with Microsoft, but it initially wasn’t clear whether Power BI and SharePoint were included. CDW arranged meetings with Microsoft to clarify the details and ensure that only minor changes were needed to deploy the licenses universitywide.
“CDW’s expertise and liaison experience was critical,” De Quilettes says. “It came into play again and again every time we had a question about how to move forward.”