Cloud-A Closer Reality for Education Industry

By Bill Gruszka, VP/CIO, Clayton State University

Bill Gruszka, VP/CIO, Clayton State University

Benefits of Cloud Computing for the Education Industry

Cloud computing is an interesting topic. Discussing its benefits will always put you on the politically correct side of the topic. If you read the national press, and listen to some of my peers, cloud computing is (or should be) the default for all IT decisions.

I look at cloud computing in a slightly different light. I see it as a tool in the arsenal of a CIO. It is a very powerful tool, but like any other tool, it has its place. Just like you can’t use a hammer for every problem around the house, similarly cloud computing cannot help solve every IT problem.

The education industry, and I speak mainly of higher education, has many challenges. For some of them, cloud computing is the perfect answer. I look at two separate aspects of cloud computing, software (applications and services) and hardware (resources.) In each of these aspect, Cloud Computing needs to be looked at with the understanding that no solution is perfect and we are really just looking for one that minimizes the negatives while maximizing the positives.

"Where Cloud really shines is when application and services, which were previously provided with on-site servers and software, can be commoditized and offered as a purchased service"

Where Cloud really shines is when application and services, which were previously provided with on-site servers and software, can be commoditized and offered as a purchased service. I believe that the number one application of this type is email. In the past, campuses had to manage multiple servers and services, not to mention ever-growing needs for storage. Now through companies like Google and Microsoft, these services are available for low (or no) cost. Additionally each of the major providers has a constantly growing suite of applications, which provide additional tools that are used by our ever more collaborative campus constituencies. In the case of Microsoft, with Office 365, tools such as Yammer, Sway, Delve, SharePoint, OneDrive and Skype for Business are available to our entire faculty, staff and students. Further, each now have access to the Office suite, both on-line and through download to their personal devices.

This is just one example of the value of Cloud Computing for applications. There are countless examples of both enterprise-wide applications, like email, to a small application used to monitor students in a Chemistry lab. In the past, on-campus developers would take a few weeks (or months) to develop a custom application, with a goal of giving the requestor 100 percent of the features and functionality that they desired. Unfortunately, the custom application also generally required significant future maintenance.

Now, a developer will look for a generic application, often available as a cloud service, that does nearly all of what the requestor is asking for with minor involvement by the IT staff, usually to ensure proper security and possibly authentication through the campus identity management. The lead time becomes days (or hours) instead of months. For these reasons, cloud applications have become the first choice for any new application. Custom development should be the last possible option. Additionally, prior to performing major maintenance on a custom application, a review of available cloud applications should be undertaken to ensure that a custom app is still the only viable option.

The other major area where cloud computing shines is when infrastructure resources are needed for on-demand capabilities or for quick turnaround, short lead-time applications. What I am referring as on-demand capabilities is that many times in Higher ED (and likely all other businesses) there are occasions of anticipated short duration, high demand projects requiring computing cycles and/or storage. When these situations occur, a CIO has to decide whether it is better to purchase permanent resources to be located and managed in the Data Center or just purchase what they need when they need it. Cloud Computing in this example is very attractive because it can be turned on and turned off at any time and the only cost is for what is actually used. That way, even if the high demand is cyclical, the resources are available when needed, while keeping the costs as low as possible.

When referring to quick turn-around, short lead-time applications, I am talking about the classic “proof of concept” or in Higher Ed, possibly a research project. If a sudden need arises, perhaps a colleague suggests something new, a server can be spun up in the cloud, storage allocated and the whole thing can be running by day’s end. All without taxing campus computing resources.

As I mentioned earlier, I look at Cloud Computing as a tool to be used where appropriate. I have read many articles (and heard many speakers) that contend that you can outsource your entire Data Center to the Cloud. This may be true for many industries but I contend that it may not be the case in Higher Ed. Having spent the early part of my career in manufacturing companies, I know that in a profitable business, funds for capital expenditures are often far more difficult to obtain than funds for operating expenditures. In Higher Ed, or at least at the universities have worked for, the opposite is true. While capital budgets for IT hardware are virtually non-existent, there are still several opportunities throughout the year to get non-recurring funds. Unfortunately, increased recurring operating funds are extremely difficult to obtain. As such, it is impossible to make a move to Cloud Computing the default decision. That said, Cloud Computing should remain a viable option to be examined as a possible solution any time that computing resources are required. I think there will always be a need for a base of computing and storage resources in the Data Center, but cloud is ideal for the spikes.

To summarize, Cloud Computing is one of the most powerful tools available to a CIO. I don’t believe that any investment decision, whether it is application or resource focused, should be made without considering the Cloud options. That said, it is the economics of the individual decision that should guide the decision on moving to the cloud or not. These decisions are too critical to go into a situation with a predetermined answer. The cloud is not the right choice for every decision, but it is the right choice for some.

Higher Education CIOs have seen the onslaught of both digital content and mobile devices and need to insure their infrastructure is ready

The answer to this is frighteningly easy in concept, but difficult in execution. What needs to be done in the area of infrastructure investment is, increase it… A lot!!!

The question touches on two separate, but interrelated topics that both require an investment. The first issue you mentioned is the onslaught of digital content. That creates stress on the organization in the storage requirements as well as the internet bandwidth. Fortunately, the cost of each has come down significantly. Unfortunately, volume requirements have increased faster. The kilobits became megabits and the megabits became gigabits, or, if I may, KB became MB and now GB or in some cases TB. Each of those minor one-character increases represents a 1,000-fold increase. This is true for both bandwidth and storage.

The other issue is the onslaught of digital devices. This has placed a terrible strain on the wireless infrastructure at most campuses. Not only do have to worry about the bandwidth through our wireless network, but we also have to be concerned with how many simultaneous connections we can support.

In general, all of the problems created by the onslaught of digital content and mobile devices are easily fixed – it only takes money! That’s the execution piece. With unlimited funds, we could purchase copious amounts of storage and bandwidth and try to stay ahead of the demand. We could also develop a plan to keep ahead of the curve on wireless infrastructure, and the wired infrastructure needed to support it. The demand for bandwidth seems to be insatiable!

Unfortunately, as I mentioned, this plan falls apart at the execution phase. I don’t know of a campus that can afford the necessary investments to keep up with the demands. CIOs are forced to get creative. We have to find ways to reduce expenses in other areas so that we can increase the funds available for investment without additional cost to the University. We also use devices such as packet shapers and caching servers to eke out enhanced performance in the networks we have.

As large of problem as this is today, I can only see it getting worse. The number of wireless devices and the volume of digital content are growing at a more rapid pace than ever before. Managing that growth will be one of the CIOs greatest challenges for a long time.

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