Jun 21 2024

Can Tech Consolidation Solve Cloud Sprawl in Higher Education?

The mountains of data colleges and universities need to manage and store may make cloud migration seem impossible. It isn’t.

Universities are full of innovative academics, including students and staff, pushing the boundaries of what is typical and possible. With that may come a pile of virtual and on-premises resources that they’ve used for short-term projects, or redundant technology already available in a similar form from another department or section of the university, which can lead to cloud sprawl.

Tech consolidation, updated policies and strong communication between IT departments and technology users can help mitigate the issue. IT departments can use this strategy to take the initiative to prevent cloud sprawl while accommodating all the creativity and innovation universities require.

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Higher Education’s Trouble with Cloud Sprawl

“Cloud sprawl occurs when different departments in an organization, such as a university, start using cloud services independently without central coordination. Imagine the research department using one cloud service, the admin offices using another and student services using yet another — all to quickly meet their needs without waiting for IT approval,” says Justin Hurst, CTO for the Asia-Pacific region at Extreme Networks in Tokyo. “While this can lead to quick solutions and innovation, it also creates a tangled web of cloud services that's hard to manage, secure and optimize.”

Hurst says the term “cloud” covers everything from big enterprise apps like Microsoft 365 to personal storage apps like Dropbox and Infrastructure as a Service platforms like Azure for building applications. “This variety makes it easy for cloud sprawl to get out of hand, especially because most users aren't tech experts. They often need help distinguishing between IT-provided resources, consumer-level tech and enterprise cloud solutions.” He adds that the confusion can lead to higher costs — and even security risks — as different services pile up without proper oversight.

Identifying and Mitigating the Impact of Cloud Sprawl

Cloud sprawl is an inevitable reality for many universities. But it’s avoidable with the right tools and strategy.

“If you’re using Software as a Service solutions, maybe you’re spinning up Teams or SharePoint sites. Depending on how easy the environment is to do these things — create virtual machines, team sites, groups and SharePoint resources for the average, in-the-trenches, working-day, rank-and-file users — you can get into the trap of sprawl,” says Justin Wagner, CDW SaaS solutions consultant. “There’s just all these resources that are out there that don’t necessarily need to be there long-term.”

But determining whether cloud sprawl is an issue for you might not be a simple question. Instead, you have to gather information first

“Identifying cloud sprawl in higher education begins with addressing the human side. One of the most effective ways to gather information from staff and departments is through surveys, interviews and regular meetings where faculty and administrative personnel share their cloud usage patterns and needs,” Hurst says. He adds that this process helps to create a culture of open communication and collaboration between IT and other departments, which is crucial in uncovering “shadow IT.” 

“Shadow IT refers to the use of unauthorized cloud services or applications by employees, often without the knowledge or approval of the IT department. Understanding the specific requirements driving the use of various cloud services can help prevent the rise of shadow IT and the subsequent cloud sprawl,” Hurst adds.

KEEP READING: How to integrate IT operations when colleges merge.

There are some advanced methods for limiting access to shadow IT, Wagner says, such as Microsoft Defender for Cloud Apps. “If your domain name, for example, is out there in Dropbox land or Google land, it will see those kinds of things and alert your IT department.”

But, Wagner adds, a more preventive and direct stance could be to communicate to users that they should not participate in shadow IT, and to create an open communication policy so they feel they can reach out when they need something and be part of “building good IT culture.”

Justin Wagner
There’s just all these resources that are out there that don’t necessarily need to be there long-term.”

Justin Wagner SaaS Solutions Consultant, CDW

Leveraging Tech Consolidation to Limit Cloud Sprawl in Higher Ed

There are three clear benefits from using tech consolidation to avoid sprawl: financial savings, increased security and an IT staff that has time and bandwidth to become helpful experts on the tech tools available to users, rather than cleaning up messes. Higher ed institutions with smart buildings, including those using the Internet of Things, might be contributing to cloud sprawl as well. So, as campuses advance into the future of smart building technology, setting up processes that prevent sprawl before that progresses is essential.

“Tech consolidation can also improve data security and compliance. With a unified cloud strategy, institutions can implement consistent security policies and controls across all services, reducing the risk of data breaches and ensuring regulatory compliance,” Hurst says. A consolidated environment also facilitates better data integration and accessibility, enhancing department collaboration and productivity, he adds. “Ultimately, tech consolidation helps institutions focus on their core educational mission without the distractions and inefficiencies of managing multiple disparate cloud services.”

The Future of Tech Consolidation in an AI-Driven World

As with most things, those working on cloud sprawl prevention and related products are keeping an eye out for how artificial intelligence will change the game. Hurst predicts the trend in higher education will likely continue toward multicloud and hybrid cloud strategies, offering users flexibility to use the best features cloud providers offer without sacrificing control over data and applications.

“Advances in AI and machine learning will significantly optimize cloud usage, providing institutions with more intelligent tools for managing resources, predicting costs and enhancing security,” Hurst says.

Higher ed institutions can watch for more sophisticated cloud management platforms to emerge, he adds, making it easier for institutions to monitor and control their cloud environments. 

“These platforms will offer greater visibility, automation and integration capabilities, helping to reduce cloud sprawl further and improve operational efficiency,” Hurst says. “As regulations governing data privacy and sovereignty become more stringent, institutions will also place a greater emphasis on compliance and data protection, ensuring that their cloud strategies align with legal requirements and best practices.”

He says IT leaders can benefit from a future cloud ecosystem that is balanced, secure, cost-effective and, most important, supports the evolving needs of higher education.

UP NEXT: Colleges are moving communications to the cloud.

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