“Above-campus” computing services may offer the best option for responsiveness and reasonable cost. A task force from EDUCAUSE, NACUBO, and Internet2 is investigating the promise and peril of cloud computing for higher education.
By Richard Katz
- See sidebar, “Forecasting Cloud Activity”
In the September 2004 issue of the Chronicle of Higher Education, Ira Fuchs, then vice president for research in information technology of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, argued that meeting higher education’s long-term software needs required the creation of a coordinating body. He suggested it be reminiscent of Bellcore, the telecom industry’s cooperative designed to set standards and conduct research and development. Supported financially by a large number of colleges and universities, Fuch’s “Educore” would coordinate the development and maintenance of open source software for the benefit of higher education, “giving universities and colleges the security they seek, but rarely find, in their relationships with corporate partners—who can raise prices and maintenance fees suddenly, or stop producing or supporting programs with little warning.”
Three major developments that impinge on Fuchs’s original vision are relevant here.
- The dominant paradigm of software is shifting. Software is being reconceived, rewritten, and increasingly redeployed as a service. Even more, infrastructure—and entire business processes—are now becoming available as services. This development suggests that colleges and universities may be able to radically reconsider how they organize information technologies in support of their missions and the economics of IT and communications.
In a world where infrastructure, applications, services, and processes can be invoked and consumed on demand, providers no longer have to operate these services on campus nor provide sufficient capacity to meet “just-in-case” spikes in demand. While it is not yet clear whether total IT costs will decline, scale economies suggest that they will; and the shift to a services model will make it possible for IT to behave less like a capital good and more like an expense. Expenses are more predictable, more easily tracked, and—if desired—more easily recovered. The technology architecture enabling a shift in the locus of service provision is today called cloud computing.
- Since 2008, much of the world has been in a recession. In the United States, the recession is thought by most economists to be the deepest since the Great Depression. College and university endowments have experienced losses—some substantial—requiring layoffs, furloughs, service curtailments, and a host of other actions in even the most-elite institutions. Widespread unemployment has resulted in a flood of enrollments at community colleges and state universities, outstripping the capacity of many institutions to meet constituent demand for their services.
These developments place new stresses on top of long-term trends in the cost and cost structure of higher education. Unable to add capacity rapidly—and badly in need of realizable economies of scale—institutions of higher learning are looking for new ways to deliver their missions. Supplementing or replacing face-to-face higher education services with services accessible via the Internet is an important class of alternatives under consideration by higher education’s leaders.
- Many people throughout the world have been acclimated to taking courses, buying things, engaging in social exchanges, and so on over the Internet. The emergence of the Apple iPhone’s “apps store,” the success of the open source movement, and the rapid embrace of cloud computing by many software developers are fueling both tremendous innovation “in the cloud” and a robust consumer economy for services delivered “in the cloud.” Rapid growth in the supply of cloud services is drawing many students, faculty, staff, and other stakeholders away from institutional solutions and services.
This flow of consumer choice represents an even greater IT governance challenge to higher education than does the decentralization of IT to academic departments and laboratories. The unregulated movement of services off campus will pose a significant set of policy and competitive challenges to colleges and universities. Will academics use cloud-based tools to capture and store FERPA-protected information from classes without the institution’s knowledge? Are service providers’ IT environments secure? Who controls data in extramurally managed environments in cases of contract dispute, or mergers and acquisitions?
Fuchs’s original vision of Educore has only been strengthened and extended by intervening events. Higher education costs—including the costs of IT—must be reined in and higher education leaders must move to plan and organize a portfolio of infrastructure, applications, and services that is both premise-based and externally sourced, or they will inherit an unplanned patchwork quilt formed by constituents who have voted with their feet.
Finally, the failure to conceive and execute such a portfolio will increasingly consign colleges and universities to mediocrity as the locus of services innovation shifts to the cloud.
An Important Step
Earlier this year, thanks to support from IBM, Pearson Higher Education, and SunGard Higher Education, 50 leaders from colleges, universities, corporations, NACUBO, EDUCAUSE, Internet2, and state networks met in Tempe, Arizona, to discuss cloud computing and the impending shift in the way infrastructure, applications, and services are sourced. This group identified a set of actions that colleges and universities could take to prepare themselves for what they concluded was a promising, risky, and inevitable shift. (See a comprehensive white paper jointly published by NACUBO and EDUCAUSE describing the meeting proceedings and outcomes.)
Participants also identified actions that EDUCAUSE, NACUBO, and other higher education organizations might undertake to educate their stakeholders and to identify practices that will mitigate some of the risks inherent in sourcing “above the campus.” Suggested actions:
- Create a map of the cloudscape. Services such as Google Apps and Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud are well-known, but beyond a relatively short list, little is understood about the IT infrastructure, applications, or platforms that are available as “services” in the cloud. Research the cloud services market, especially in product-service areas that are high candidates for use in higher education. Specifically, develop a map that describes by category cloud-based infrastructure, platform, application services, and software that are available and the vendors that are competing in these categories.
- Develop a guide to writing a business case for cloud sourcing. Based on findings for the cloudscape map, develop a short document that describes key questions to help frame an effective decision about hosting a system or service on campus, or “in the cloud.” Questions might include: What is impelling us to consider change? Is cloud sourcing cheaper? Are cloud options more full-featured, reliable, robust, accessible, or nimble? What are the comparative risks? What is the risk of inaction?
- Prepare a costing template. Identify uniform cost categories in both on-premises and cloud-based delivery alternatives and recommend preferred guidelines and methods for calculating said costs, when appropriate.
- Complete a risk assessment framework and guide. Develop a document to guide practitioners and policymakers through a risk analysis of premises-based and cloud-based delivery alternatives.
- Formulate audit guidelines to examine cloud-based infrastructure, systems, and services. This document will guide auditors through a risk assessment and audit of cloud-based transactions and portfolios.
- Articulate what campus leaders need to know about above-campus systems and services. The result will be a short, strategically positioned document to educate trustees, regents, chancellors, presidents, senior staff, and academic leaders about the opportunities and challenges presented by cloud computing and the migration of infrastructure, systems, and services above the campus.
- Identify new skills. IT professionals, business professions, lawyers, auditors, and others will need new skills to manage an infrastructure and service portfolio that is hosted elsewhere or invoked as needed as an Internet service. Skills such as contract management, creation of service agreements, and security management change as the portfolio changes. Institutions need to articulate a new curriculum and offer new professional development opportunities.
- Transition to new governance. One of the key drivers of the need for higher education to act is the rapid evolution of the consumer market delivered via cloud computing. Increasingly, faculty, students, and eventually staff, are choosing to use a wide variety of consumer services in lieu of services being offered by the institution. This shift may have untoward economic effects and may create undocumented risks of security and privacy spills, data corruption and seizure, FERPA nondisclosure, and so on. The unregulated movement of IT and services off the campus represents an important opportunity to rethink IT governance. The deliverable would be an essay that would guide the “safe” consumerization of IT infrastructure and business and academic services.
- Create model service-level agreements. A deconstruction or anatomy of a service-level agreement defines the purposes of an SLA, typical areas covered by SLAs, tips for negotiating service levels, and effective practices in managing contractual relations through such agreements. Ideally the model would include examples of effective service-level agreements.
- Circulate a policy series. Short cloud-related policy perspectives might include topics such as privacy, data ownership, and exit strategies for above-campus services.
The unregulated movement of IT and services off the campus represents an important opportunity to rethink IT governance.
Most important, these leaders projected the timeliness of catalyzing the emergence of an entity or entities that would aggregate demand for above-campus services. Like Educore, a private higher education demand aggregator would be a coordinating body with a federated identity infrastructure, a common directory of services, standard contract terms, performance standards, standards of transparency, and so forth. The goal would be to aggregate demand from prospective college and university users in a way that simplifies the sourcing process and lowers the mistrust currently corroding the commercial sourcing environment.
Lowering the trust barrier to higher education’s widespread participation in a “cloud economy” entails the insertion of a trusted intermediary with community-informed rules of business and governance. Unlike Educore, the scope of this entity would not be restricted to software, but might evolve to become an ecosystem, access channel, or broker of software, solutions, infrastructure, and services. At the Cloud Computing Workshop, Shelton Waggener, associate vice chancellor and chief information officer at the University of California–Berkeley, described what was needed this way: “I want a consortium that facilitates targeted providers and standards, and makes the provisioning aspects of services customer friendly. It is the facilitation and provisioning of services—all done under master agreements—that will reduce the barriers to usage. I don’t have to negotiate each time, which will benefit suppliers and campuses alike.”
Conference participants asked EDUCAUSE, NACUBO, and Internet2 to evaluate the feasibility of creating such a consortium on behalf of higher education. (See sidebar, “Task Force to Take Next Steps” on plans for doing that.) Marilyn McMillan, vice president for IT and chief information technology officer at New York University, New York City, extended this visionary mission to accent an additional role: “We need an incubation function. Don’t let 1,000 flowers grow unattended, but rather operate something on a venture-philanthropy model.”
RICHARD KATZ is vice president of EDUCAUSE, Denver.