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Shining a Light on Cloud Computing for Higher Ed

Earlier this month EDUCAUSE 2009 was held in the midst of concern over shrinking budgets and increasing IT needs at institutions of higher education. Several sessions and many conversations centered around how to take advantage of economies represented by new technologies such as cloud computing and distributed communication tools.
This interest was reflected in a “Point Counterpoint” session held in a small room packed to overflowing featuring Michael Dieckmann, Senior Associate VP and CIO, University of West Florida and Melissa Woo, Director, Research Cyberinfrastructure, Network and Operations Services, University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee who were there to shine a light on perceived cloud computing perils (Woo) and opportunities (Dieckmann).  By the numbers in the room “Cloud Computing: Hype or Hope” was was clearly of interest to many attendees who shared concerns that for higher ed in particular, it is imperative to understand the bottom line in IT services  when it comes using cloud computing services for mission-centric institutional activities.
They showed comparisons between Gartner’s Five Attributes of Cloud Computing ( and the NIST Definition of Cloud Computing—“Essential Characteristics” ( and contrasted these to what they believed were key characteristics for the successful use of cloud computing by university IT departments. They suggested that universities require IT (including infrastructure) as a network-delivered service that can be massively shared, is extremely flexible, and that allows for a “pay as you go” economic model.
Dieckmann pointed out that to some extent cloud computing is the way the IT industry is evolving, “Massive economies of scale will drive cloud computing because it is the most cost-effective way to provide services to our institutions.” He wondered at what point in the evolution of the service you have to ask about what the reason for doing things in the cloud is. He emphasized that we do not have to act like we are being forced to swallow a poison pill because there are many advantages, and ultimately inevitability, to adopting the use of cloud technologies.
Woo countered by asking why university IT leaders are focused on “when” instead of “why”? “Why are we not asking our stakeholders about what they need,” She queried? She used Gmail as an example of how large services go down and create security risks, data loss, and data that is “locked-up.”
Dieckman suggested that we are throwing our responsibilities “over the wall” and encouraged listeners to step out of their IT silos and think about cloud computing in a larger campus context. “It should not be all about cost,” He said.
He qualified this view by pointing out that economic sustainability coupled with green computing are driving the debate on campuses. Gathering departmental servers into central data units has already occurred. Campus customers may not care whether it’s an on-campus server or a virtual server located somewhere else. As long as systems are managed by professional systems engineers then perhaps central IT should migrate to external services.
Diekmann and Woo concurred that an evaluation of the measure of harm to campuses if you cannot trust that data will be there would be a useful decision-making tool for individual institutions. For the academy the “Crown jewel assets are our data.” Once you have transferred to an external service what do you do if the economics change?   Interoperable cloud provider standards do not yet exist that might protect institutional assets stored in the cloud.
Woo believes that IT outsourcing is a general problem that outsourcing to cloud providers only exacerbates. There is a perception that “we (campus IT) are better” than the commercial providers. The idea that things are always better on the inside than they are on the outside, however, is not always true.
Other issues around integrating in-house services with cloud services include identity management and branding in the cloud that may be threatened by across-the-board eLearning and eManagment tools. Maintaining a coherent and recognizable computing environment in the cloud is challenging right now for colleges and universities who are concerned about leveraging their digital brands in an era of increasingly competitive and distributed online learning.