Jun 24 2010

Seeing Between the Clouds

With cloud computing, IT staffs now spend as much time making strategic decisions as they do deploying technology.

Patricia Pasinski

Traditionally, the IT department has been the focal point for practical technology knowledge on campus, but cloud computing is changing that. 

Today, with dozens of potential outsourced applications available, much of the functional knowledge resides with the faculty and staff of the college. IT may know where to get a web server at a good price or how to deploy a wireless network, but they are not going to fully understand the specific business processes of financial aid, enrollment or the admissions office. In fact, people come to us with ideas for applications that will help their department become more efficient.

As we look at technology solutions, whether we outsource or bring them in house, our first move is to gather representatives from various departments so we all can better understand how a new system would change the way we do business. It's important to get the right people involved and for them to be confident that their concerns are being addressed.

One way to do this is to assign a project manager from one of the functional departments who has a vested interest in the success of the new application. This is a real departure from past practice, in which an employee from the IT department would serve as the project manager.

Our IT staffers, while still technical, are also developing skills as contract reviewers. We hired a new person in our business office who had previous experience in IT contract review and negotiations because we recognized the need for this skill moving forward. It's this person's job to find out if the service provider charges annual fees for licenses or if an application is cost effective. For example, the application may cost less as a hosted solution in the cloud, but if the college needs to purchase a new web server, it will take longer for the application to pay for itself.

Strategy Makers

IT's job now is as much about making strategic business decisions for the college as it is about rolling out new technology. Some examples of common questions that come up on any given day: When we evaluate our storage needs, are we comfortable with having all our mission-critical data out in the cloud? Are we going to host the new application or have the service provider host it? And finally, do we have an exit strategy? What happens if circumstances change and we want to take the application in-house? Is there an easy way for the provider to return the data to us?

The reality is that we have been doing cloud computing for several years now. One of our first ventures into the cloud was in 2002 when we started using the National Student Clearinghouse, a website that verifies a student's enrollment at a college or the degrees he or she earned. The difference today is that there are so many more applications to choose from, and with budget pressures, each new proposed expenditure needs to be evaluated based on the benefits to the college community. 

Cost pressures being what they are, there's no way IT can continue to keep their staffs intact and control technology projects the way they did in the past. We've found that the best path is to work collaboratively and together be smarter about which cloud applications make sense for our college.