Evaluating the Viability of Cloud Computing

“We have various systems in the cloud, but I would not say that we are ostensibly moved into the cloud,” says Thomas Skill, Ph.D., associate provost & CIO and professor of Communication for Ohio-based University of Dayton (UD). “Our situation is probably representative of many campuses. With 10,000 students, 3,000 employees, 58 buildings, 165 virtual servers, 250 physical servers, campus-wide systems that are talking with each other, it’s more complicated to move into the cloud than it appears because of the integration between the systems.”

Skill and his co-workers have addressed the challenge of what to move into the cloud by focusing on the systems most effectively managed by a system provider or those that have little interdependence on each other. There are five so far: Touchnet Marketplace, an eCommerce suite; People Admin, a hiring and position control application; Everbridge, an emergency notification system; T2, a campus parking management system; and Follet BookLog, a bookstore textbook sales system. “The benefit,” says Skill, “is not just that they’re in the cloud, but that the providers are the experts in their apps. They know better than we do. Plus, it saves us maintenance, training, and more.”

Yes, the cloud is beginning to work its magic at UD, as it is on many campuses. “Administrators have gone from ‘The cloud is not for us’ to ‘it’s for us and what do we do about it?’” says Andrew Sroka, CEO of Naples, FL-based Fischer International, which provides both on-premise and cloud-based identity management deployments. And the answer to that question is: evaluate it thoroughly.

For example, when UD administrators look to purchase new systems, they ask themselves: Is it better to have it hosted in the cloud or on campus? “We do an analysis,” says Skill. “It’s based on cost and the challenges we face in terms of managing the system and hardware, training, pressure on our already-limited staff, and more.” That analysis is exactly on target, and administrators are encouraged to carefully consider all the pros and cons of cloud computing.

The Pros
Clearly, if administrators are starting to use cloud computing, they must be finding some benefit or else they wouldn’t be making the move. Here are a host of benefits.

Emergency: One of Skill’s motivations for using the cloud is consideration about disaster planning and preparedness, disaster recovery, and business continuity. “Using the cloud means you’re more insulated from interruptions based on local or regional disasters,” he notes.

Manpower: Across the entire scale of higher education, no matter how large or small the school, everyone is looking to reduce staff, handling more initiatives and projects with less people. The ability to move non-core processes and do it while saving money is a big benefit.

Agility: The ability to add services, respond to institutional changes, and respond to the needs of the staff/students are definite benefits. “Anything to reduce time to value is a pro for an institution,” Sroka says.

Skill agrees, noting that, “If it gives the user community greater value, such as rapid enhancements and upgrades, then it’s worthwhile.”

Cost Predictability: Most cloud solutions are subscription-based, and plugging in a fixed predictable cost is a big pro. Still, Sroka notes that there’s a long debate about the cost savings and total cost of ownership associated with cloud apps. “There is vocal participation on both sides,” he says. “People are looking for immediate and dramatic cost savings. Long-term ownership is where the benefit comes in. But there’s cost recovery, and that may be more different for higher education than for the corporate sector because fixed costs in higher education are obfuscated; they’re not easy to determine, but they need to be factored into the ROI. Efficiencies, agility gains, and repurposing of staff members are no longer associated with the move to the cloud.”

Accessibility: The ability to extend apps to distance learners and new campuses is more difficult to do on-premise than it is in the cloud.

Ability to Manage Growth:
This is less painful with cloud-based solutions than it is with on-premise solutions.

The Cons

UD administrators have added more and more IT systems to provide services faster, better, and more competitively than other systems. They’re looking at how to provide services without adding staff or cost, and the cloud is a good answer most of the time. “It’s clearly not the answer all the time, though,” Skill cautions. “There are a lot of complicated issues. And the unique knowledge that people on campus have suggests that some systems are not going to easily or quickly be put on the cloud.” Here are three issues that are holding some administrators back.

Culture: For many administrators, moving to the cloud is a cultural question. “You have to have a great appetite for risk or great trust in a partner in order to hand things over,” says Sroka. This is especially true for research universities, such as those doing biomedical research. “They have a culture of management and administration where ownership overrules cost savings,” he says. “So the cloud’s not the silver bullet for everybody. It has credible benefits and advantages, but there are places where it doesn’t fit.”

Security: “The largest conversation we get from our customers is how secure is it?” Sroka says. “The cloud doesn’t have a deep track record yet, so the concern is valid. Two years ago, the cloud was too risky. Now we know we need to use it to leverage the benefits, so customers are asking: ‘How are you going to make it secure for us?’”

One Size Does Not Fit All: There are some apps and systems that aren’t right for the cloud. “We wouldn’t advocate all cloud all the time,” says Sroka. Outside of cultural issues, some apps and systems, such as some for engineering and biotechnology, don’t lend themselves to cloud computing, or they may be better suited for hybridization, where the hosting is outsourced, but control is maintained in house.

Many in the higher education community already have cloud computing services in their portfolios, such as Blackboard, but which they don’t think of as being in the cloud. Once that realization sets in, it’ll be a natural next step to begin evaluating cloud computing’s pros and cons for specific applications on their campuses. After all, moving services to the cloud, says Sroka, is more of a “not if, but when” scenario.

UD’s Next Move to the Cloud
In addition to current five cloud-hosted systems, University of Dayton, OH, administrators have four planned or in the works:
  • Gmail/Google Apps, an e-mail system scheduled to launch this fall;
  • Terra Dotta, an international travel management system;
  • CMSI, a student athlete information reporting system; and
  • Leapfrog, a courseleaf bulletin.

In terms of long-range plans, the administrators are evaluating Sungard Banner, a student/administrative ERP.

“We’ve been selective so far at what we’re putting in the cloud,” Skill admits. “We’ve been deliberate and have looked at each system as it needs to be purchased or replaced. We’re taking it one step at a time, and I suspect that a lot of universities are doing the same.”

Cloud Computing Defined
“There are three service models that define cloud computing,” says Greg Jackson, vice president of Policy & Analysis for EDUCAUSE, a nonprofit organization that is advancing higher education by promoting the intelligent use of information technology, with offices in Boulder, CO, and Washington, DC. They are Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). Here’s what each model means.

Software as a Service (SaaS): Here, apps are hosted by an off-site service provider and are available to end users across a network — usually the Internet. For example, notes Jackson, his paycheck is generated by a company called ADP, as opposed to being produced in the EDUCAUSE office. “There’s a long tradition in higher education of using software as a service,” he notes. “It’s not sexy, but it is pretty well understood. It’s powerful, and it’s important.”

Platform as a Service (PaaS): In this case, operating systems and their services are provided across the Internet. Apps are deployed without the cost of buying and managing the hardware and software; the subscriber is not concerned with downloads or the installation of those services. “What’s happened recently,” says Jackson, “is administrators buy space on shared computers and, instead of using large storage facilities on campus, will store on Amazon or Google and run virtual machines.”

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS):
This model includes the outsourcing of physical equipment, such as servers, networking components, and data-center space. In this case, subscribers do not need to purchase additional or replace aging equipment. They also save money in not needing to hire additional IT personnel to support even more hardware as programs and enrollment expand.