Universities & the cloud: services, economics & impacts

On the final day of Educase09, the last working session that I attended was Cloud Computing: Services, Economics, and Impacts. I’d missed an earlier session that was very popular on the same subject due to conflicting interests and as the last session on the topic, the session was so full that it was standing room only. I didn’t have enough space to pull out my laptop, so took some very rough notes on my iPhone. (Apologies if they don’t provide a complete picture of the session.) I found it very enlightening and objective on the subject and the considerations surrounding this issue.
The discussion centred on a range of questions given to the panel of experts (mostly CIOs – see the link above for full details). I’ve tried to note their responses.
Cloud computing: definitions
Some definitions were discussed and all seemed to have an element about scale. These are useful:

A style of computing where massively scalable IT-related capabilities are provided “as a service” using Internet technologies to multiple external customers.
(Gartner, 6/08).

. . . massive aggregation of a wide variety of IT services delivered via fast digital networks – much like power generation and the electrical grid of a public utility.
(Brad Wheeler & Shelton Waggener, EDUCAUSE review 2009)

The services themselves have long been referred to as Software as a Service (SaaS). The datacenter hardware and software is what we will call a Cloud. When a Cloud is made available in a pay-as-you-go manner to the general public, we call it a Public Cloud; the service being sold is Utility Computing.
We use the term Private Cloud to refer to internal datacenters of a business or other organization, not made available to the general public.”
Armbrust, et al., Above the Clouds)

What is different, and how is it different, when you compare cloud computing to traditional out-sourcing or software as a service?

  • Cloud computing needs integration so it looks like extension of the campus.
  • It also needs strong identity management and a federation system.
  • It differs from out sourcing as it is usually more flexible, elastic and it is more configurable to meet changed demands.
  • Also, cloud computing makes universities it think differently about running everything themselves.
  • The comfort factor is different too for off-campus services: If Google goes down people seem to understand; there is a different end-user experience in cloud.
  • Users don’t care about content being hosted in a “ .edu” domain as long as it works.
  • Easy-to-use interfaces from huge investments in the cloud if the services are mass consumerised but if not, it could cause trouble.
  • One panelist saw IT as advocates for best service and therefore the cloud had to be on their radar.

What is the compelling case for cloud computing?

  • There are very obvious economic benefits from shared data centres alone. Regional computing centres are growing rapidly in California – as the cheapest available solution.
  • We need to decouple the concept of “computer labs” from the location of software and digital storage so they (i.e. users) don’t need to come to the service (it comes to them).
  • We may be in a “perfect storm” for case-building right now: the GFC; carbon neutral pressure; limited expansion space; etc.
  • The total cost of ownership is less.
  • Services are provided to locations all over with limited space investment.
  • The time to market and deliver is much quicker.

There may be opportunities for scaling infrastructure. Does the collaborative nature of higher ed support cloud activities across university systems or consortia?

  • One panelist cited the example of the Fedora Commons and Dspace consortium DuraCloud as large buying agents.
  • Collaboration provides many advantages for those who don’t have the necessary storage competencies.
  • Collaborative consortia may be better equipped to leverage Amazon services.
  • There is already pressure for access from researchers to use the commercial cloud and they seem less concerned with oft cited disadvantages such as re privacy, security of data, down times, etc.
  • It works when the new service is better than old way

How does cloud computing impact governance, the organization of our departments and the skills of our staff?

  • Simple innovation isn’t a component of greatness – we need to focus on core (and not just try to be “trendy”).
  • Cloud computing could be disruptive and it must be a strategic decision that is supported by whole management team (it isn’t just a tactical initiative tactical like moving student email to Google is).
  • The decision needs entire institution buy-in.
  • It is broader than just a CIO issue.
  • Privacy issues: when dealing with offshore servers, yes there are jurisdiction issues; but Google is willing to give assurances that they will comply with national requirement as they want our business; the problem is solvable.
  • One issue is the possibility of going to the cloud and then the company who is providing the service goes bankrupt, but that can also happen with traditional IT services. A risk management plan is needed.
  • Universities may need to reset different levels of service.

How does cloud computing impact governance, the organization of our departments and the skills of our staff?

  • We cannot grow as quickly, even in regional collaboration projects as the large commercial companies can.
  • What changes needed in IT staff? More expertise in contract management.
  • Someone needs to make a sensible decision about which records to turn over.
  • Most (IT) jobs and roles are changing anyway.

What should campuses be thinking about today and including in our planning for tomorrow?

  • Changing capital $ into those devoted to the provision of services (power costs need to be considered too).
  • In general, some services seem appropriate for the cloud, some should be provided on the campus & and some should be shared.

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