ANN HILL DUIN of the University of Minnesota says colleges are just beginning to tap cloud computing’s potential.

Jan 30 2012
Data Center

Colleges Explore the Cloud

IT departments at colleges are slowly moving mission-critical applications to the cloud.

The University of Minnesota has a cloud-first strategy. That's because the cloud is driving efficiencies, fostering collaboration and speeding IT innovation — advancements that will improve teaching and learning for thousands of students and faculty.

Ann Hill Duin, the interim vice president and CIO with the university's Office of Information Technology, says cloud computing is a game-changer that lets IT units deploy new features in a timely fashion, faster than ever before. Gone are the days of months-long programming to custom-build applications that may or may not be what end users want or need. Cloud services are set to replace large-scale licensing deals and software packages that are acquired, integrated into existing environments, maintained and continuously upgraded.

With the cloud, "the innovation element is there," Duin says.

Sharon Pitt, executive director of George Mason University's Division of Instructional Technology, agrees. She says that while most universities are still in the early stages of cloud use, progress is forthcoming.

"When you start to think of virtualized delivery of serv­ices, of storage services in the cloud and other advanced apps, the cloud will provide greater elasticity for IT groups so we can respond more appropriately and with 'yes' answers to our institutions more often than we ever have been able to," says Pitt.

And that is what the game-change is all about.

Minnesota's Cloud-First Strategy

As one of the nation's largest universities, with nearly 68,000 students, the University of Minnesota's main campus sits in the heart of the Twin Cities. There are four coor­dinate campuses across the state. The university started with cloud services a few years ago in a big way. Today, it uses Google for e-mail, calendars, documents and even Google+, which has a desktop video conferencing component that brings students and faculty together in an online forum.

"Think of the cost that would have been, to deploy desktop video at this level of effectiveness, that can support up to 10 people," Duin says.

All of the cloud-based applications allow for more collaborative educational opportunities for the students, Duin explains, pointing to capabilities that let students create online sites where they can gather, share information and even work together on group projects.

With the cloud, the University of Minnesota's IT units can deploy new features that positively impact students' learning and the faculty's teachings. "The cloud gives us the ability to deploy new innovations that in the past took months to develop and really aren't sustainable," Duin says.

The university also uses's cloud application to support admissions, streamlining the constituent relationship management process for more than 40,000 applicants. The application helps the university manage the processes and workflow associated with prospective students.

Eventually, the University of Minnesota hopes to expand that cloud service to serve as a lifecycle application that can support students from admissions to graduation, and even as alumni for foundation work. The university also is deploying a cloud registration system for noncredit courses, as well as a cloud-based learning management system. "There are a minimum of a half-dozen of these kinds of cloud services in play," says Duin.

66% The estimated savings of implementing and sustaining a cloud environment compared with a traditional, nonvirtualized IT data center over 13 years

SOURCE: Booz Allen Hamilton

The Middle Cloud

Cloud computing is gaining traction in higher education. But Ben Marglin, principal with Booz Allen Hamilton, says full-scale adoption among colleges and universities is not the norm.

"We are somewhere in the middle," he says. "Cloud is not new, and people have been talking about it for a while. Some are still just looking, others have jumped in."

Long Island University, which serves about 24,000 students on several campuses spread out across New York's Long Island, sees great potential in the cloud. The university deployed tablets to about 10,000 students and educators as part of an initiative to provide students with access to campus resources and educational services via the cloud. The students receive the devices for free if they are incoming, full-time freshmen and transfer students. Incoming graduate students and new part-time undergrads pay half the price, or $250.

Each device comes loaded with MyLIU, a cloud-based interface to campus maps, news, course schedules, calendars, discussion groups and personal account information. The tablets foster collaboration among students, faculty and advisers, and they enhance learning by making it easier for these groups to connect with each other. Users can utilize the tablets and portal to organize, store and share files, assign­ments and presentations; conduct research online; and ­access academic and financial-aid records. Digital books can be downloaded on the tablets, which also can be used to take notes in class.

The cloud also improves the university's operational efficiencies, says George Baroudi, LIU's vice president of IT and CIO. "In the old days, we had to build a data center to provide services such as e-mail," he continues. "We had to have servers, server administrators and storage on the back end. That's no longer necessary."

Now, the IT department needs minimal staff. Systems administrators can perform various maintenance and management tasks, such as deleting e-mail accounts, Baroudi says. In addition to MyLIU, the university is deploying Google Apps, which will go live in spring 2012.

A Public-Private Mix

George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., leverages a mix of cloud services in both private and public cloud models. For example, students use Microsoft Live e-mail, a public cloud service. But there's also a private cloud that students can use to access online, reservation-based software tools that reside in the university's data center.

George Mason's Pitt says the private cloud gives students a window to software tools for data mining and statistical analysis, such as those from IBM SPSS. The private cloud lets students remotely perform computational work on blades in the data center, which offer tremendous elasticity, scalability and processing power.

That elasticity and scalability is supported by cloud computing's ability to deliver shared, scalable resources (many of which are virtualized), as well as software and information to computers and other devices on demand over the Internet. "But there's also the access piece," Pitt says, pointing to such benefits as improved safety because students don't have to trek to the campus computer labs late at night to work on their projects.

"I'm really excited about what the students and faculty will be able to do with this kind of access," Pitt says. "With 24x7 access to these kinds of tools, you are really expanding the capabilities of the institution deeper into the population that you serve."

Overall, universities are still investigating just how to put cloud services to work in their environments. But as the IT leaders at the University of Minnesota, Long ­Island University and George Mason University can attest, if you don't want to stand on the sidelines, now is the time to get in the game.

Breaking Through the Cloud

Many colleges and universities are bullish on the cloud and are already reaping benefits. But IT leaders agree that there are still issues that colleges need to keep in mind as they pursue cloud technologies. Here are three points to consider.

Think about the legal implications.George Baroudi, vice president of IT and CIO at Long Island University, says cloud computing models can present legal concerns. That's because discovering electronically stored information in a cloud, where clients share resources, is complex. The information often is under the control of a third-party cloud provider, and the rules regarding federal procedures are vague concerning possession, custody and control. Also, because cloud computing services can deal with a large number of clients and may intermingle clients' resources, it's often difficult to isolate or retrieve the physical storage medium of one client's data in a lawsuit without adversely affecting other clients who are not involved in the litigation.

"With e-discovery laws, imagine getting sued and then having to secure all the data," Baroudi says. "Some of that data could be lost in space, particularly when you have proxies and no physical access."

That's why, for the time being, LIU does not permit administrative and operational data or student grades to reside in the cloud.

Keep security in mind. Security is still a top-of-mind concern for many IT managers. The University of Minnesota's audit department ran a due-diligence assessment prior to the deployment of the cloud-based enterprise services it uses, and Ann Hill Duin, interim vice president and CIO, says the audit was well worth it. "It was excellent and looked closely at all the information and communication risks," she says.

Ultimately, the university determined that the systems in place for Google Apps were more secure than if the university were to run the e-mail on local servers and manage security in-house. Nevertheless, the university does not currently permit users who are handling private health information to use Gmail. "We continue to provide a local e-mail service for these users," she says. "You really have to look at your institution's risk-tolerance level. IT alone cannot know, but instead must work with general counsel, purchasing, the HIPAA officer and other university entities."

Investigate the different pricing models for public cloud services. Keep in mind that licensing and pricing models for cloud computing are still in flux. Booz Allen Hamilton's Ben Marglin says universities need to analyze costs over time to best determine optimal pricing. "The best analogy is electricity, which is essentially a cloud model. You pay based on usage, and you don't have to pay an upfront or annual licensing cost," Marglin says.

But the challenge providers are having now is finding a balance between profitability and pricing that's attractive enough for customers. For example, in a complex deployment supporting 100,000 users, does it make more sense to buy licenses and pay an annual fee, or buy in the cloud and pay on a usage or time basis? "We have yet to see whether the numbers work so that both sides can be happy," Marglin notes.

Rich Fleischman

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