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Higher Education's Elevation Toward the Cloud

Cloud computing is gaining traction as mainstream for many applications in the education and research industries. Commercial enterprises have turned to the “cloud” for years to gain on-demand access to a shared pool of computing resources. Now, with organizations realizing compelling advantages in cost, speed, and efficiency, cloud computing is expanding to meet the needs of a diverse range of industries—and higher education is among the fields taking the plunge in certain application areas.

For more than three decades, higher education institutions have devoted significant human and fiscal investments in information technology to support priorities tied to teaching and learning. These institutions typically required technology and computing approaches that were significantly different from the needs of traditional commercial enterprises, for which most computing and technology offerings were originally developed. As a result, most institutions today find themselves supporting, largely with their own internal staff, computing solutions that are significantly customized and becoming more and more complex as schools rush to adapt to the consumerization of education, where their constituents expect the same web 2.0 experience that they take for granted from the commercial internet. Regrettably, this has proven to be a very costly model, and in many cases, has resulted in barriers to delivering the level of service desired by students, faculty, and staff—who increasingly demand access to systems from any device, anytime, and anywhere. However, with the introduction of cloud computing, higher education institutions now have affordable choices and a multitude of options never before available.

So why are higher education institutions looking toward the cloud? The key factors are not new to IT leaders—shrinking budgets, increasing system complexity, and escalating user expectations. Many institutions still use legacy or customized technologies that are resource-intensive to maintain and upgrade. But these solutions are not agile enough to meet the needs of today’s high-tech education environment. To meet demands of the 21st-century institution (Campus 2020 as we call it), many colleges and universities are transitioning from static, in-house legacy systems to a model where “back office” applications such as enterprise resource planning (ERP), student information systems, and even learning management systems are commercially off-the-shelf (COTS) products that are either offered as a shared service in a private cloud or consumed as a service from a public cloud provider. This transformation can enable higher education institutions to better process and utilize data, facilitate information sharing, and most importantly drive effectiveness and efficiency across the enterprise.

The Data Deluge

The amount of data and content the average institution must maintain and store has gone from a trickle to what could now only be described as a flood. Unfortunately, all the data, complexity, and volume have not resulted in greatly enhanced information access or true business intelligence. In fact, colleges and universities find themselves struggling to organize and disseminate the massive amounts of data they possess. The issues are compounded at research institutions that maintain large data sets from scientific computing, and by recent changes from granting agencies such as the National Science Foundation (NSF) that drive even greater requirements for data preservation, curation, and sharing. As if these challenges were not significant enough, increasing demands for transparency, governance, and data-retention regulation compliance are adding to the “big data” hurdles faced by higher education.

This data deluge is unsustainable on legacy systems. Data center optimization is one means to handling ballooning data volumes—often involving the use of operating system (OS) virtualization solutions that enable resource consolidation. Virtualization enables consolidation by separating the OS and application layers from the hardware platform in a system. However, this approach only enables an institution to share information at the infrastructure level. Institutions need to move away from physical silos to a shared model where both the infrastructure and services are shared, scalable, and available. Cloud computing provides a level of dynamic, flexible resource sharing and asset allocation necessary to enable institutions to handle and organize data at their own pace, through appropriate channels.

Enterprisewide Information Exchange

As higher education institutions today find themselves navigating increasingly complex computing systems, it becomes even harder for faculty and staff to share information across the enterprise. Many times, departments begin to work separately, with no means for collaboration. This often leads to erroneous, inconsistent processes as well as duplication of work, and thus, a waste of resources.

More and more schools are leveraging cloud technologies and standards to consolidate and centralize into a shared services model, enabling disparate departments to pool resources, saving money while broadening capabilities. This approach enables separate units to work together and provide faculty and students with access to all of their needs, ranging from business operations to administrative computing to education and academia, all in one place. Cloud computing can serve as the catalyst that enables multiple departments to share data via a common database or application.

For instance, an institution using a legacy infrastructure could have one system for admissions, another student administration system, and a separate financial system. When a prospective student begins the admissions process, he or she likely receives a log-in for the university’s admissions system. After that student matriculates, he or she will then receive a new username for the student administration system, while continuing to pay bills through a separate financial system with yet another username/password. Such a siloed system prevents an institution from capturing a comprehensive view of the student, and hampers its ability to efficiently meet that student’s needs as he or she progresses toward graduation.

In addition, schools are turning to the cloud to provide students and administrators with greater access to information through multi-channel platforms and broad network services. With on-demand, self-service applications engulfing the commercial landscape, students and faculty demand similar capabilities from their school. Cloud computing provides institutions with unfettered access to services via standard methods over the internet, via PDAs/smartphones, thin clients, laptops, and standard desktop workstations. This enables students to access their class schedule via an iPad, or administrators to alter their class roster during the first day of class from a laptop. Real-time information on campus enables students to maximize their educational experience and administrators to make more informed business decisions regarding university operations.

Greater Efficiency, Greater Effectiveness

As significant reductions in funding continue to be the norm, institutions are increasingly challenging traditional approaches. Faced with demands requiring slashes to curricula, staff cuts (including tenured faculty), and financial aid reductions, it may not be surprising that higher education information technology leaders find themselves reexamining the status quo. Institutions unable to evolve their computing approaches to meet growing demands in the wake of increasingly constrained resources will likely face escalating challenges, complexity, and costs, as well as decreasing returns from their human and capital investments. Agility is no longer just a hype-cycle term; it is a baseline reality.

While implementing new solutions can be costly, higher education institutions are realizing significant returns on their cloud investments, whether public or private. For instance, by simplifying their existing IT architecture, and in many cases outsourcing hosting responsibilities, institutions can reduce maintenance time and costs, enabling them to dramatically reduce long-term expenses. In addition, some institutions are using pre-integrated systems as opposed to best-of-breed at every layer of the IT “stack,” enabling university employees to spend less time troubleshooting and integrating multiple systems and more time focusing on other enterprise-critical missions to enhance efficiency and further reduce both personnel and IT costs.

Not ‘If,’ But ‘When’

It has already become commonplace for many consumer-type services to move “below campus” onto commodity or public cloud provider networks—such as email, instant messaging, calendaring, and network-based productivity suites—and off the list of services considered integral to an institution’s central IT environment. But as cloud computing becomes more widespread in the higher education realm, administrators will need to carefully consider which services they elect to deliver locally, and which they should source “above campus” in the cloud. These decisions will need to be thoroughly deliberated, as they represent the “crown jewels” of an institution’s computing infrastructure, and what distinguishes the institution from its peers.

For higher education, with the tangible benefits of efficiency, cost savings, and improved service delivery at their fingertips, the challenge is “how, what, and when” to move to the cloud—not “if.”