Feb 28 2020

Learning Curve: 3 Campus Cloud Challenges Your College Should Expect

Shifting from on-premises to off-premises requires universities to re-evaluate skill sets and think differently about IT infrastructure.

Campus technology is undergoing rapid evolution. As noted by research firm Gartner, more than half of university CIOs now expect “significant business model change” thanks to digital transformation efforts.

Leading this tech transition is the cloud, with adoption continuing to scale even as schools look for ways to bridge the emerging skills gap. Ongoing educational uptake of distributed service delivery is no surprise; budgetary benefits, enhanced student data security and on-demand access are all part of the cloud computing promise.

But with broad benefits come campus cloud challenges. The biggest potential pitfall? Generalization. Gone are the days of “the cloud” as a catch-all for any service managed outside local stacks. Today, the diversification of providers and deployment strategies means increased market complexity: Is a large-scale public cloud the best bet for IT services, or should schools opt for in-house private cloud offerings? What about multicloud or hybrid models?

Solutions and services are also function-specific: It’s not simply Software as a Service, it’s purpose-built Disaster Recovery as a Service or other cloud storage applications that can be integrated and modified on demand. It’s not merely Infrastructure as a Service, it’s support for everything from school enterprise resource planning deployments to finance systems and registration portals.

Damian Doyle, assistant vice president of enterprise infrastructure solutions at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, puts it simply: “Cloud is a new skill set, related to existing IT, but different. A lot of the benefits don’t work if you use the same skill set.”

It’s a steep learning curve — but with the right approach it’s possible to reorient staff, refocus IT efforts and resolve the top three campus cloud challenges.

Cloud Challenge No. 1: Solving for SaaS

Software as a Service represents the front line of cloud computing. It’s familiar, easy to understand and widely adopted by colleges, even if they haven’t purposefully sought out SaaS deployments. From email to social media sites and cloud-based student registration systems, shifting application resources from local racks is the first step in realizing cloud benefits.

For campus IT, however, Doyle notes that this presents a challenge.

“It used to be that you could fully learn how something works. Now, there’s continual change,” he said. Existing knowledge of on-premises software management and monitoring won’t pay off in the cloud.

“SaaS requires different training. It’s about understanding that I don’t need an application developer, I need a project liaison and I need to know where the line of support changes.”

To leverage the value of SaaS at scale, IT teams must move away from the manual tasks of iterating, testing and deploying applications on local servers. Instead, they must focus on the managerial aspects of service-level agreements and support requirements to ensure SaaS solutions meet necessary uptime and performance benchmarks.

Cloud Challenge No. 2: Implementing IaaS

While Doyle notes that UMBC is “now in a good place” when it comes to cloud computing, the journey wasn’t smooth. Today, the university has shifted finance, administration, research and even some instructional infrastructure into the cloud, but Doyle notes they “made most of the mistakes you can make along the way.”

When it comes to transitioning away from onsite infrastructure, Doyle highlights the sense of security that comes with being able to physically find and fix local servers; if something goes wrong, staff are on-hand to quickly remedy the issue. He suggests that colleges “need to move in a very strategic way.” Instead of deploying new infrastructure in-situ, Doyle recommends first carving out time for technology team professional development to gain the skills necessary for IaaS migration.

Breaking down IT silos is next. “You need the right people to be part of the conversation,” he said. “You need the sysadmin, networking, security. If you leave groups out, you wind up with big gaps and problems where one group is not supportive.”

Cloud Challenge No. 3: Securing Stakeholder Support

As noted by a recent EDUCASE report, one of the top 10 tech priorities in 2020 for higher education is the development of digital integrations — systems that are interoperable, scalable and extensible on demand. Cloud computing offers the textbook definition of these benefits, but even with reoriented SaaS approaches and refocused IaaS efforts, campuses won’t recognize integrative innovation without the support of stakeholders at every organizational level.

For Doyle, this requires “bringing in all stakeholders at the beginning to create some kind of governance and committee structure, rather than after the fact.” This is a significant shift from on-premises deployments, because implementing new applications in-house or expanding data center footprints doesn’t require the same kind of oversight.

In Doyle’s view, the pay-for-use model of cloud computing means “sysadmins now need to worry about costs”; technology in isolation and IT as a line item are no longer enough to drive line-of-business value. Instead, IT “needs to make the case for other groups for why they should take their time and be in these meetings.” Technology teams need to articulate the benefit of the cloud to persuade stakeholders and create the necessary structure to support new deployments at scale and speed.

Diversification and specification have changed the higher ed landscape. Service, strategy and support are now the operational mandates required for higher education IT teams to leverage the value of campus cloud computing.

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