LMS Multitenancy Guide — Why You Might Want It, And Best-Of-Breed Solutions

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lms multitenancy
Credit: In5D. CC BY-NC 3.0

On its surface, multitenancy or “multi tenancy” is the ability to manage several instances (ehm, “Tenants”) of a system from a central place. In LMS terms, the multitenancy puzzle has 3 pieces:

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  • One host and between 2 and infinite tenants. Each tenant has their own set of learners, content and unique visual identities.
  • A shared pool of resources. From pieces of content —think single videos, documents or a quiz bank—, to complete courses, rubrics and competency frameworks. It can also encompass computational resources like CPUs and memory.
  • A “super admin” role or team, able to manage each tenant LMS from a central dashboard. This could involve, among other things, the ability to define settings and permission for each tenant LMS, one by one or in bulk. Among other privileges only allowed for those who belong on the upper echelon.

With these relatively simple elements, complex LMS setups are possible and only limited by the imagination. And the information architecture of the system, of course. Even if you only need a simple LMS that does the job, knowing that your system is flexible enough to handle a deeper level of modularity should speak well of your provider’s technology and ability. Beyond vanity metrics, however, multitenancy happens to be a requirement for systems aspiring to reach into the intricate and profitable world of enterprise software.

So, what is multitenancy?

In short, a multitenant LMS allows you to host several LMS inside one system. Each tenant doesn’t have —nor do they need— to know about the existence of other tenants. Your LMS might be part of a vast multitenant conspiracy without even noticing.

Multitenancy is not an exclusive concept of LMS. In enterprise-level systems at large, multitenancy appears as an architectural choice where as many components of the system, from the hardware, operating system all the way to the application itself; can be shared among independent organizations. With the notable exception of the interface. Multitenancy has become a darling in the world of cloud-based deployments, at times converging and clashing at others with the idea of containers, which advocate for separation albeit in a virtual level.

But IBM’s Steve Poole explains it better: These architectural merge “saves money, reduces complexity and becomes a business differentiator. But it requires engineering effort.” A word he uses to describe this effort is “density,” more or less referring to the amount of separate, moving parts that must be in perfect shape at all times, as a single point of failure amounts to failure for all tenants.black Add to that the finer “isolation” requirements for much more detailed rules of access and permission, to prevent tenants to be at the mercy of each other, privacy wise.

If you can pull multitenancy off, you sure know what you’re doing!

What are the benefits of multitenancy?

Multi-tenant LMS provide a centralized way to manage any number of LMS, from 2 to as many as the architecture and resources allow.

The “Super Admin” person or group is the grand master here. With higher-level goals, they can decide the fate of any and all LMS from a central dashboard, saving them a lot of time.

Super Admins can access reporting and analytics from all LMS from the central dashboard. If the LMS offers predictive analytics, each tenant would probably also benefit from the data of all the other tenants to generate robust student forecasts. (If the information on each of the experiments can be shared, of course.)

All of it, while providing a unique experience for each tenant, customized to their specific learners.

What attracted me to multitenancy

If you feel in disarray, with countless platforms running rampant, looking to obtain special privileges than those assign to regular admins, the multitenancy features are worth considering.

Keep in mind, however, that multitenancy might be too complex and expensive a solution. Not so much for the additional computational requirements, but for the administrative burden involved in setting up and maintaining a multitenancy solution. The time taken defining, deploying and maintaining roles, scopes and permissions should not be understated.

Let’s quickly review some of the common business cases that would merit evaluating, if not necessarily going for, a multitenancy solution.

  • An elearning agency or company offering tailored and managed LMS to customers, perhaps within a defined content niche.
  • A provider of educational content, particularly one focused on data collection and interactivity, who wants to make sure the content is properly delivered.
  • A large organization with several training departments, or a national level education ministry wants to equip schools on local levels with LMS courses and contents, while managing use of resources and maybe even staff and enrollments.

Which LMS offers multitenancy?

Another issue to address is the fact that the word could mean different things for different vendors. It can also be understood differently according to your technical specialty.

Companies that are primarily or exclusively cloud-based can claim to be technically multi-tenant setups. This includes Instructure Canvas, Blackboard Learn, D2L and MoodleCloud. But this definition does not answer if they can give you a solution that includes the 3 key ingredients listed on top.

Below, are the ways in which multitenancy is offered or referred to by some of the main players in the “LMS Space Race”

Moodle Workplace: Its killer feature?

Among the main core 4 or 5 plugins that make Moodle Workplace worth considering over the original, free and open source Moodle is multitenancy. It is tied to another new feature, Hierarchies, which lets sites mirror the roles structure of an organization. Learn more here.

Moodle Workplace is available exclusively through certain Moodle Partners.

Vanilla Moodle: Not out of the box, Yes thanks to IOMAD

Multitenancy is a common and longstanding feature request that for reasons unknown Moodle hasn’t decided to accomodate. At some point developers have considered the idea, put the project was ultimately shelved. Instead, limited separation of users and experiences was made possible with cohort themes. Other plugins have come up to try and make up for the limitation.

Fortunately, there’s IOMAD. The product of Scottish Moodle Partner E-Learn Design, it uses a clever tweak on the default database that lets it host separate user bases and experiences. Check out iomad.org to learn more, download or inquire about E-Learn Design managed multitenancy.

In all likelihood, other Moodle Partners can provide custom solutions to deliver multitenancy while still keeping your LMS open source.

Sakai: No but doable as soon as the need arise

I have been unable to find a production implementation of multitenancy in Sakai. The company’s public face, “Dr. Chuck,” has mentioned the possibility a couple times in the past. (Even lauding D2L’s multitenancy features at some point.)

It would appear the situation with Sakai is similar to Moodle, but there is a subtle and meaningful difference. The Moodle core is centrally defined, whereas Sakai is the result of the needs, commitments and investments of its users. At its annual corporate conference on 2017, Splunk engineers Ben August and Dave Safian talked about the multitenancy architecture on the servers of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. User information for Sakai, WordPress and Splunk were all merged in a fascinating setup that created a system served from a central place, but where student and course information (and non-LMS data) were available for the Chapel Hill Departments to where they belonged only. (PDF)

Multitenant Sakai at Chapel Hill (PDF). Single service dashboard. Each color on the usage bar chart represents an independent tenant.

Learnbook LMS: Multitenant departure from Moodle

Moodle remains in the heart of Learnbook, as well as eCreators and its founder, Dean Saunders. But multitenancy is one of the several new fronts the company is singlehandedly investing to push Moodle further. Part of its “Single Image Infrastructure,” this version of Learnbook is currently being tried with large organizations, the kind that would require an orchestration of LMS to satisfy their learning needs.

D2L: Multitenancy within multitenancy

D2L’s “Lanlord” service —microservice to be exact— provides customers with tools to control aspects of their environment, all of which in reality inhabit the same SaaS solution. But D2L’s multitenancy is not only technical. For some of the company’s larger clients, a team of admins can manage a large number of these “slices.” Case in point is the University System of Georgia and its array of LMS per School.

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Using terms like “isolated” or “branched” environments, the corporate upstart includes multitenancy as part of its “white label LMS.”

Spotted in the wild: Other LMS featuring multitenancy

  • Walkgrove Svelte LMS offers what David Patterson at Learning Light considers “one of the most intricate multi-tenancy solutions I have ever seen.” The descriptions and illustrations in Patterson’s review fall short of supporting his statement.
  • Other reviewed LMS featuring some level of multitenancy by Patterson include Agylia, Eurekos and Firmwater.
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