May 07 2015

Why Colleges Are Embracing the Hybrid Cloud

Colleges and universities increasingly rely on a mix of local and cloud-based resources to power key applications.

Pepperdine University’s old backup solution wasn’t working.

For about 300 users with encrypted data, the Malibu, Calif.-based institution previously relied on encrypted external hard drives for data recovery. When backups were needed, tech staff often found hard drives sitting in a cabinet collecting dust — users hadn’t been backing up their data.

“Few people did it responsibly, and they would get themselves in trouble,” says Gerard Flynn, Pepperdine’s senior director of IT administration and client services. Sometimes, six months’ worth of data would be missing, he says. In one instance, the university paid about $2,000 to recover the sole remaining draft of a dissertation off of a corrupted hard drive.

To eliminate such issues, Pepperdine implemented CrashPlan, a cloud-based backup service offered by software company Code42. The service automatically backs up the encrypted data in the cloud, without requiring users to do anything extra. An on-premises component complements the solution: Encryption keys are stored on a local appliance, giving the university an additional layer of data security. For a select group of VIP users, data is also backed up on the local appliance, creating redundancy and ensuring immediate access in case anyone must quickly access a file. Users aren’t required to log in separately to access backed-up data from the cloud or the local appliance.

“When you do a restore, it doesn’t say where the data is coming from,” says Joe Munoz, who leads Pepperdine’s Anytime Support group. “From the client side, they just say ‘go.’ It makes it very easy for end users.”

Such seamless integration of on-premises and cloud-based resources into one cohesive end-user experience makes the hybrid cloud model attractive to a growing number of college and university IT shops.

Why Institutions Go Hybrid

Many institutions find they took an accidental path toward a hybrid cloud computing model, says Melanie Posey, IDC’s research vice president for hosting and managed network services. Such organizations typically turn to the cloud for one application or another, but they don’t want to completely dismantle an onsite legacy system. The hybrid model allows such diverse or disparate systems to work together.

“It’s a model that’s expanding as organizations realize the benefit of the cloud for certain types of applications and workloads,” Posey says.


Percentage of higher education institutions employing a hybrid model for their data storage

SOURCE: CIO Executive Council, “Higher Education Technology Benchmark Survey — 2014,” March 2015

Baltimore-based Loyola University Maryland is one such institution that stumbled into a hybrid cloud model more by accident than by design.

“It wasn’t a deliberate choice for us,” says Louise Finn, CIO and vice president for technology services at Loyola. “You just find yourself there by way of solutions that are available in the marketplace.”

The university some years ago adopted a cloud-based learning management system. In order to log students in, the system draws on Loyola’s ID management system, which is maintained in-house. A year after courses end, all of the data stored in the cloud “ages off” the LMS to be archived on Loyola’s own servers.

“That’s a huge benefit,” Finn says.

Another is “elasticity,” which she says allows organizations to temporarily exceed local IT capacity without making a large investment in new physical infrastructure. For example, Loyola has looked at potentially spilling over into the cloud on heavy student registration days.

“We wouldn’t have to build up our hardware just for those peak processing days,” Finn says.

Why Layered Redundancy Is Vital

Unity College in Maine keeps an instance of its Active Directory in-house, and also maintains another instance in the cloud through Microsoft Azure.

“It provides a layer of redundancy or resiliency for us,” says Bert Audette, the college’s director of information technology.

Because of that redundancy, users can log in to Unity’s cloud-hosted LMS even when an Internet connection is down. At the same time, local users can authenticate through the on-premises instance of the directory, which responds more quickly than the cloud-hosted directory.

While Unity’s hybrid approach to its production servers provides a specific benefit, Audette says, the college also migrated about half of its development servers to the cloud — a move that has more to do with Unity’s general shift toward hosted services than with any particular benefit of the hybrid cloud model.

“We’re getting our feet wet,” he says.

While Unity officials wanted to shift new development servers into the cloud, there was no pressing reason to get rid of existing physical servers. Today, local servers and hosted servers coexist in a hybrid cloud model — as Posey says, “by accident.”

Charting the Way Forward

Audette expects colleges and universities will continue looking to the cloud to improve the efficiency of IT operations.

“Higher education is always looking for ways to do it better, cheaper, faster,” he says. “We have a lot of pressures on us from a cost perspective. We tend to explore and look for those opportunities to make things better.”

Loyola’s Finn still has some concerns when it comes to data security for certain cloud applications, she says, particularly those that store information from multiple schools within one database. “You’re one coding error away from your data leaking into someone else’s interface,” she says.

Still, Finn expects that the economies of scale made possible through the cloud will lead, eventually, to nearly all services being hosted there.

“Once everybody figures it out and gets things down to a science, it’s going to be so much easier and cheaper,” she says.

But Audette isn’t so sure that everything will end up in the cloud.

“Unity is a very remote college, and we need to be able to provide 24/7, 365-day access to a lot of different things,” he says. “Our Internet connection is fairly stable, but there are times when it’s down for a few hours here and there. I see us needing to keep some on-campus servers.”

So, is the hybrid cloud a permanent model, or is it just a stop along the path to a world in which all resources are hosted in the cloud?

The answer likely will change from one institution to another.

“For some organizations, the hybrid cloud is the end of the road,” Posey says. “For others, it’s just a rest stop.”

Thomas Alleman

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