Jan 06 2022

How and Why to Establish a Cloud Center of Excellence

Creating a cloud center of excellence can be key to a university’s overall adoption strategy.

Higher education institutions have embraced Software as a Service (SaaS) delivery models for many of their core applications, including learning management, student information systems, HR systems and more. SaaS solutions can allow the institution to focus on service delivery excellence while relying on the vendor for application infrastructure support.

Incorporating a cloud-delivered application into the campus ecosystem often involves integrating it with a campus single-sign-on (SSO) environment, integrating campus data with the application and managing user lifecycles within the application. These all require specific integration skills.

Campuses that seek to migrate infrastructure to the cloud often find a different set of economics at play. Migrating infrastructure with little or no modification (sometimes called “lift and shift”) frequently brings along many of the same problems they had with their on-premises applications. This can still be a viable transition strategy, but unlocking the full benefits of cloud infrastructure almost always requires some refactoring. This too requires specific integration skills.

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A New School of Thought

Refactoring applications and infrastructure to be “cloud native” requires attention to new areas. Network latency and fault tolerance become greater design factors. Securing and monitoring cloud assets involves new tools and processes, and cost monitoring is essential to ensure that unused assets do not continue to accrue costs.

Cloud deployment often requires organizations to refactor their application stacks to incorporate DevOps principles. Infrastructure as Code tools such as Terraform, Amazon Web Services’ CloudFormation and Azure Resource Manager allow organizations to use version control tools to automate deployment and manage changes to infrastructure over time. Container orchestration tools such as Kubernetes and Docker Swarm allow for self-healing infrastructure that can dynamically scale and respond to changing conditions.

Unlocking these capabilities requires specific skills, but it is not cost-effective to hire a cloud architect for every project. Contracting out on a project-by-project basis is likely to result in inconsistent deployments, poor integration, and difficulty monitoring security and cost across different projects. Organizations need to establish a core set of competencies in cloud architecture and find a way to apply those to emergent projects.

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The Basics of Establishing a CCoE 

This is where a cloud center of excellence (CCoE) can help propel organizations forward toward cloud adoption. A CCoE is a focal point for concentrating architectural, security and policy expertise in a single team that can apply it consistently across the organization. The CCoE acts as an internal consultant on projects, helping plan, procure, architect, deploy and support cloud initiatives successfully.

Gartner identifies three pillars in establishing a CCoE. Governance defines the policies, guardrails, strategy and tooling that organizations must use to be consistent and compliant in their use of the cloud. Brokerage defines the processes and standards that the organization will use to select and contract with service providers. Community highlights the CCOE’s role in establishing a community of practice that provides training, knowledge sharing and change leadership to IT across the institution.

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Stakeholder Engagement Is Crucial for CCoEs

Establishing a CCoE starts with executive leadership support. It is critical to secure support from both senior IT leadership and others within the campus community. Many organizations find support for a CCoE within their procurement, legal or compliance offices, as the CCoE helps ensure cloud deployments are consistent with organizational requirements.

Once leadership support is secured, it’s time to form the CCoE. Many organizations designate a chief cloud architect to lead the CCoE. While cloud acumen is desirable in this position, the most important characteristics are vision and collaboration. Many organizations engage a trusted partner for the technical aspects of their cloud strategies, but it’s essential that the chief cloud architect can engage and provide change leadership with campus business partners.

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The chief cloud architect should establish a cross-functional group to define and articulate the institution’s cloud strategy and standards. This group should draw from the campus IT community and should engage those who are adopting or contemplating cloud projects. In addition to defining strategy and standards, this group acts as a catalyst for the community-building and knowledge sharing that is critical for raising the institution’s cloud competency more broadly.

Once established, the CCoE also becomes a critical component of the organization’s IT security apparatus. The CCoE will work closely with the organization’s CISO to develop processes, standards and templates that deliver compliant architecture in the cloud. Many organizations incorporate their CCoEs into their risk-assessment processes. The CCoE can establish prevetted architectural patterns that integrators can adopt as “inherited controls” and can also recommend or adopt specific tooling for cloud security evaluation and monitoring.

The Long-Term Outlook of CCoEs

As the CCoE matures, it becomes a natural focal point for refining the organization’s cloud strategy over time. The CCoE can work with business partners to establish key metrics required to evaluate the business impact of cloud adoption. The CCoE can also monitor the vendor landscape and can help the organization understand the impact of pricing or changes to service offerings over time.

It is worth noting that higher education has a wide variety of workloads, some of which may not be suitable for cloud adoption. Research workloads can often require massive storage or computing resources, and the CCoE can help researchers determine when the cloud is a good fit. Organizations with strong research missions may wish to follow Internet2’s Exploring Clouds for Acceleration of Science (E-CAS) initiative, which is examining the use of commercial clouds for research workloads.

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