Nathan Wilken, Executive Director for the University Technology Office at Arizona State University, established a cloud center of excellence early in the school’s adoption journey.

Feb 03 2022

Bringing Strategy to the Cloud

For colleges and universities with mature cloud disciplines, a cohesive strategy is necessary for success.

Like many higher education institutions, Arizona State University has integrated the cloud into its IT strategy. While initial cloud adoption can be quick and easy, making major expansions requires planning and additional strategizing by IT decision-makers. ASU technology leaders moved early in the cloud journey to establish a cloud center of excellence (CCoE), a guiding body to help drive the university’s shift to this new paradigm.

“We want to make sure that priorities are well aligned,” says Nathan Wilken, executive director for the University Technology Office at Arizona State University, of the group, which pulls together IT staff, administration and end users from across the institution. The CCoE helps ensure “that we are focusing our efforts on developing infrastructure and delivering what those stakeholders need to accomplish their goals.”

Experts agree that colleges and universities generally need a centralized, coordinated approach to deploying cloud in support of both education and research. Higher education institutions stand to benefit when they approach this adoption strategically, securely, under the guidance of an overarching body of expert stakeholders, and with all the necessary skills and expertise.

DISCOVER: A multicloud strategy that makes sense for higher education.

“You need to bring the campus community together to understand what we’re all doing and try to do it together in an organized way,” says Brian Kelly, director of the cybersecurity program at EDUCAUSE. “You want to make sure that you’re engaging with faculty, staff and students so that you get a unified approach, both from a security perspective and also in terms of cost.”

COVID-19 has accelerated this trend. In a recent survey of higher education administrators, 86 percent agreed the pandemic has increased collaboration in regard to technology adoption strategies.

At the University of Central Florida, Vice President for IT and CIO Matthew Hall takes what he describes as a federated approach to cloud management.

“We’ve got a central cloud organization,” he says. Along with researchers and other cloud users, “I’ve got our vice president from research and his staff. I’ve got a cloud manager and a few full-time employees associated with that from the central IT staff.”

In addition to ensuring cloud services align with user needs, “centralization also enables us to get scale as well as drive volume and efficiencies,” he says. “Imagine if you had 10 cloud tenants in Amazon or Azure: You would have to have 10 identity management systems, 10 security structures. The complexity becomes overwhelming if you do it outside of that center of excellence.”

A Centralized Cloud Strategy Requires Coordination

It takes a conscious effort on the part of IT leadership to organize and implement a centralized cloud strategy. Wilken launched the process by making a series of personal contacts.

We worked through exercising networks, existing stakeholder relationships and met with people individually to collaborate with them on what their success criteria would be,” he says. “We wanted our success to be measured based on what we do once we’re in the cloud.”

Hall also sought a broad base of input for his effort. Centralized management requires “consensus and understanding with your biggest consumers of the cloud,” he says. “You need to be working collaboratively with those partners, including the researchers and the central admin people.”

Whether the managing body is a CCoE, a committee or some other entity, “it starts with having the right stakeholders on hand and having buy-in on the decisions that you’re making,” says Betsy Reinitz, director of enterprise IT programs at EDUCAUSE. “All of that smooths the way for the implementation to happen.”

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Supporting Technology Streamlines Cloud Strategy

One of the key roles of the CCoE is to evaluate and implement supporting technologies — tools and processes that can help ensure consistency and efficiency across a university’s typically far-reaching cloud use cases.

Wilken leverages technology to automate the management of connections and the operations of cloud workloads. “We use orchestration tools like Ansible and Terraform. We specifically look for tools that are cloud-agnostic to align with our vision, which is multi-hybrid cloud,” Wilken says.

Orchestration goes one step further than automation, allowing his team to coordinate the execution of scripts and helping to manage complex dependencies within deployment and testing pipelines. For the University of Central Florida, Hall leverages a range of supporting technologies.

“You need a good identity and access management process, and you need an automated cloud management tool, something that audits your workloads that helps you with your bill-back,” he says. “That can also start to do workload optimization, since you get a history of utilization with your various cloud tenants.”

At the University of Notre Dame, Vice President and CIO Jane Livingston points to technology in support of cloud operations. “Dashboards give you a unified place where you can see what’s happening in your cloud environments. And there are cloud access security brokers and tools to give added visibility,” she says.

EXPLORE: How and why to establish a cloud center of excellence.

Governance and Security as Cloud Strategy Priorities

Governance is one of the key considerations for most schools looking to coordinate their cloud deployments.

“A governance, risk and compliance tool, or GRC tool, can help you see across your technology stack,” Livingston says.

Hall says it’s especially important that he has solid governance in place, especially given the complex security and privacy environment in which the university operates.

“We do Defense Department research, we have HIPAA requirements, a lot of different compliance and regulatory issues that the normal, average cloud consumer won’t understand,” he says. “Having that central security and compliance administration and identity and access management is critical.”

RELATED: Keep an eye on these cloud security trends in 2022.

Cyber concerns likewise demand a coordinated approach, given the complexities of the cloud landscape in higher education.

“We’re seeing more and more campus stakeholders coming to the cybersecurity leads early and saying, ‘How can we do this?’” Kelly says. “At EDUCAUSE, as our institutional members are looking at cloud deployment, we’re seeing more of that collaboration and having a standardized strategy to engage with cloud vendors.”

Wilken leverages commercial technologies to help meet this need for Arizona State University.

“We currently use Splunk, as well as a whole spectrum of other tools we’re experimenting with in different contexts,” he says.

Threat analysis tools in particular give him an edge, as they allow him to “do threat intelligence triage and design queries and algorithms to mine the data that you’re collecting,” he says.

While gathering log data is a good starting point, “the analytics tools, query tools, visualization tools and dashboard tools — all those enable security analysts and data scientists to mine that data, and that is where you get your insights.”

Kelly points to recent evolutions in the security product space as a positive sign for university IT leaders looking to safeguard their cloud deployments.

Security information and event management offerings are maturing beyond just event tracking, he says. “Now with security orchestration, automation and response, or SOAR, you have a place where both security and IT professionals can see what’s in the environment and can manage and configure it.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: What are best practices for research security?

Mature Cloud Disciplines Require Diverse Staff Skill Sets

The as-a-service nature of the cloud means higher education institutions can potentially free up IT staff from daily drudge work while encouraging workers to improve their skill sets. A coordinated approach to cloud can help the university take advantage of these opportunities.

Wilken taps automation and orchestration to free up skilled IT labor. By putting robotics in charge of mundane daily tasks, “we get more of their human insights and more of their core competency applied to solving the business problems,” he says.

Overall, cloud creates opportunities for IT staffers to expand beyond their usually siloed efforts.

In the past, “you had security people, you had network people, you had system administrators,” Livingston says. Cross-functional visibility in the cloud “really enables people to ramp up their capabilities, their ability to improve their knowledge across disciplines in the ecosystem.”

To take advantage of this, IT leaders may need to adopt a more fluid approach. “Job descriptions need to be written in such a way that they acknowledge the fact that the positions have to evolve, roles have to evolve,” Reinitz says. “Role agility is really important, developing your staff in a way to keep their skills up to date.”

Photography by Jill Richards

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