Bruce Petryshak of Middle Tennessee State University uses a combination of public, private and hybrid clouds. 

May 11 2012
Data Center

Colleges Take Many Paths to the Cloud

When it comes to cloud deployments, colleges use public, private and hybrid clouds.

Officials at Middle Tennessee State University decided early on that cloud computing was right for them. But what cloud model would be most appropriate for MTSU's 27,000 students, faculty and staff — public, private or a hybrid of the two?

Check the box for all of the above, says Bruce Petryshak, MTSU's vice president for information technology and CIO. "There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the cloud, especially in a higher education environment," he says.

MTSU built a private internal cloud the university calls "C@M–Cloud at Middle" that delivers virtual access to standard desktop and classroom applications. At the same time, MTSU migrated student e-mail, a campuswide scheduling application, a learning management system and its web content management system to public cloud services.

Proceed with Caution

MTSU's multipronged plan is not unusual. Most colleges are taking a cautious approach to the cloud, with the majority focusing on internal efforts while at the same time investigating hybrid models and public services, says Kenneth C. Green, founding director of the Campus Computing Project.

"Higher education, like a lot of market segments, has been talking about the cloud for a long time. But if you compare deployment in higher ed to other segments that have the same kind of technology complexity, I would say that we lag," Green says.

That's especially true when it comes to public-cloud use, which has thus far been limited to applications such as student e-mail, scheduling and calendaring.

There are many reasons for this reluctance. For starters, technology providers that focus on higher education have been slower to come out with cloud offerings, including enterprise, resource and planning solutions. However, most colleges balk at signing on with public-cloud services because of concerns about security. Administrators are focused on the potential for mishandling or misuse of data that's regulated under the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), as well as the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) and federal export/import control laws.

"I think it's striking — and it speaks to the issue of trust — that campuses have not yet migrated their institutional e-mail for faculty and administration in the same percentages that they've migrated student e-mail," Green says. "Higher education likes to hold things close, and it's just something that takes time in terms of changing the culture, changing budgets and building trust. It's going to be a slow process."

Brian D. Voss, vice president of information technology and CIO at the University of Maryland, agrees. For his institution, a campus-based private cloud is the first and most critical steppingstone to broader cloud adoption. Although the institution has moved its student e-mail to a public cloud offered by Google, its central IT department is building an internal cloud in anticipation of soon hosting faculty and staff e-mail and other institutional academic and mission-critical applications.

"If I can provide a local cloud and get my eggs in a single basket, then I can start to make decisions about what to do with the basket," he explains, noting that his first challenge is convincing personnel within a distributed academic and IT environment to accept that a private cloud run by central IT won't undermine their control or value.

76% of higher education institutions say that they were able to reduce the cost of applications by an average of 21% after moving them to the cloud.

SOURCE: 2011 CDW•G Cloud Tracking Poll

The logical next step beyond the private "campus" cloud, Voss says, is migrating certain university applications to hybrid clouds offered by a statewide or regional university consortium or an education-focused cloud provider, such as Internet2.

"At that point, you're in a semipublic environment, which takes away some sense of control. But it's being managed by people you know and have confidence in, rather than going to a major supplier who's also serving the world," Voss states. "It offers very real cost and efficiency benefits without taking you too far out of your comfort zone."

Easy First Steps

Another reason why many colleges are moving first to private clouds is that it's not a difficult journey. "The private cloud really lets you take advantage of your current investments in technology, and then you can drive up utilization of what you already have," says MTSU's Petryshak.

MTSU started on the road to cloud by first virtualizing its Citrix and VMware servers and deploying a NetApp storage area network. "We already had quite a bit invested in our networks and server infrastructure, so now we're just looking at that and saying, 'Well, I want to use that in a different way,' and so we just redeployed it in a different fashion," Petryshak explains.

Paul Grieggs, technical services manager at Indiana University of Pennsylvania (IUP), is also a fan of private clouds. He says they offer the university many of the efficiency, cost, ease of management and disaster recovery benefits offered by public clouds, while also providing continued control over data and the ability to maintain high service levels. The university has already moved its Moodle learning management system, a portion of its student management system, course-specific applications, and student and staff e-mail to a private cloud.

"If our instance of Moodle were to go down, for example, our No. 1 priority within the IUP cloud would be to get that application back up and running as quickly as possible," Grieggs notes. "But if that were out on a public cloud run by a provider that hosts applications for organizations from all over the world, I doubt very seriously if IUP's Moodle instance would be anywhere near the top of their priority list."

Still, IUP is more than willing to deploy applications and functions to a public cloud when certain criteria are met. An optimal candidate is a noncore business application that can be performed more efficiently and effectively by an outside provider, Grieggs says. Already, IUP has placed its parking management and facilities maintenance work-order systems with third-party hosted providers, and will soon move an online human resources search application to an external cloud.

"These are applications that were already out there, already built, and they have the economies of scale to host and manage those applications better and less expensively than we can. And because there isn't a need for a lot of customization, the workflow is essentially the same," Grieggs says.

However, there have been cases when IUP couldn't migrate an application to an external cloud because the provider wasn't willing to customize its offering or its contract.

"As a public university, we have boilerplate language that we have to follow, or we're simply not allowed to accept the contract," Grieggs explains. For example, any cloud provider that works with IUP must agree to have its services governed by the laws of Pennsylvania rather than those of the state where the cloud operation resides. "If you're talking about a small deployment, a provider is probably not going to hire an attorney to negotiate parts of their standard contract," he adds.

The Truth Is in the Testing

At the University of California at Davis, the IT staff finds that hybrid clouds are a great way to test out the cloud's parameters and potential while also guarding against risk. UC Davis, for example, is partnering with the other nine UC campuses to run PeopleSoft HR and finance applications via a platform as a service that will be operated by Oracle.

This cloud arrangement offers the best of all worlds. "The service provider delivers and runs all the underlying infrastructure — the networks, the operating systems, the storage — but we still have control over the applications running in the hosted environment," explains Peter M. Siegel, CIO for UC Davis and vice provost for information and educational technology.

"It's a compromise of sorts, but it works for us. And so we're trying out all of these 'as a service' variations, and we think that it will ultimately pave the way for more and more of the university's critical systems to be moved to a cloud environment."

UC Davis is also working with Microsoft on a hybrid arrangement that offers Office 365 e-mail, calendaring, productivity and collaboration tools via Microsoft's public cloud, but keeps some Exchange e-mail services for faculty and staff within a private cloud at the university. Since 2008, student e-mail has been provided via the Google Apps for Education cloud service.

"One key factor that made us feel really comfortable with this model is that the public cloud integrates so well with our on-campus Exchange environment that we now have a data portability model that allows us to easily migrate mailboxes to and from campus," Siegel explains.

"The service looks the same and feels the same, and it gives us real comfort knowing that we're not completely locked in and can move accounts from the cloud to the campus if we need to."

The arrangement is expected to be so positive that the IT staff at UC Davis is set to conduct a pilot project to determine if Microsoft's Azure cloud platform can effectively host, store and process the university's large-scale genomics research. Data would be transmitted from the cloud over the California Research and Education Network, a high-speed network developed by the UC system and managed by a consortium of academic institutions.

"All of this is very exciting and potentially revolutionary," Siegel says. If colleges and universities can get past the various control hurdles and negotiate good, quality contracts for hybrid or public clouds that reduce costs and add efficiencies, "then we think it will absolutely be the way for us and other colleges to go in the future."

Tamara Reynolds

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