A cloudy future for higher education

In March I shared the story of the Atlantic Computational Excellence Network (ACENET) and its critical importance supporting leading edge research.

As the date of the 2014 High Performance Computing Conference in Halifax grows near, the conference program highlights the increasingly pervasive state of computing in our world. Indeed the conference theme “HPC serving society” speaks to the broadest of mandates and a world where access to and proper use of computing technologies is critical to all areas of life.

Given that ACENET and other like HPC environments reside within the post-secondary system, it is clear that the post-secondary system like other sectors is embracing the need for leading edge technologies in order to maintain a competitive advantage. ACENET addresses the growing need for university researchers to work with big data and reflects that growing research design methodology in their work.

But the HPC big data connection is but one of the areas where post-secondary institutions find themselves pressured to keep up and maintain technological currency. Students, researchers, and employees in colleges, universities, institutes, polytechnics and CEGEPs across the country increasingly expect and demand service from and access to the growing ICT areas of cloud, mobile and digital platforms.

While this is a society wide phenomenon, these institutions of higher learning are on the front lines as they play such a critical role in preparing our next generation of professionals across all sectors. In this post I will take a look at how the cloud is finding its way into the higher education system.

Higher education today operates in an environment of increasing demand coupled with decreasing resources. Governments faced with a global economic crisis have to make decisions about what to spend and where to spend it. Education does get a good share of what is available from the public purse, but not enough to fully support what is needed.

Within the institutions, decisions have to be made as to where the money goes and it is often the business side of the system that ends up with reduced budgets, having to do more with less. Now consider this environment in the context of the most common student a twenty something year old with all of that generation’s digital native expectations. Now expand this group to include new employees as they are hired to replace the retiring boomer group fully expect to have all of the tools at work that they are used to in their daily lives.

One of the value propositions of the cloud is delivery of high end services and infrastructure at reduced cost. Let’s take a look at just one business unit that is found in all post-secondary environments – Information Technology (IT).

Higher education is increasingly reliant on IT and the expectations driven by the current trend towards consumerization of technology have quickly put CIOs in an impossible position. In an environment that has always aimed for high control and standardized computing models, the emerging world could soon be chaos.

Take for example the discussion at a recent privacy and security conference in Victoria. Here was a room of over 300 IT professionals debating whether employees should be able to use their personal technology devices to do their work rather than having to use the (often poorer performing) work provided tools. That is happening across the higher education system around the world right now and many employees and certainly almost all students expect to be able to stay connected at all times, on their devices in their preferred way. So IT finds itself faced with having to be all things to all people with decreasing dollars relative to that demand. An opportunity for the cloud – absolutely. Here are just a few of the possibilities as proposed by Richard Katz, Phil Goldstein, and Ron Yanosky.

Driving down the capital and total costs of IT in higher education: Post-secondary still operates by and large on the traditional September to April agrarian calendar model with the majority of classes running from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. This results in many servers sitting virtually idle outside of these times. In this case the sector of the cloud sometimes called Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) could provide any number of benefits including but not limited to: reduced capital expense, less IT time managing servers, an overall reduction in overall server usage and an associated cost saving if the servers were available on a pay as you use model.

Scaling IT: Particularly on the user pay model the ability to scale up and back based on demand would be an excellent benefit. This would certainly be the case in research environments where scale up might be necessary for limited periods of time. Services such ACENET could expand their mandate and help out here possibly increasing their own revenue as a result.

Accelerating time to market by reducing IT supply bottlenecks: As more and more departments and faculty respond to the demands of students and the external business world the ability to respond quickly and well is a requirement. IT departments simply do not have the person power and sometimes not the needed expertise to meet the associated needs and demands. The Cloud can make it as close to flipping a switch as possible in the current computing context.

Countering or channeling the ad hoc consumerization of enterprise IT services: Faculty love to use the latest and greatest tools and it does not take long for the IT system to be jammed with installed copies of all kinds of unapproved software – and for those who think you can simply tell them that they are “not allowed to do that” you do not have an understanding of the higher education world .

Increasing access to scarce IT talent: Like other businesses, post-secondary institutions have to compete for talent and this is definitely the case for IT talent. This is a particular challenge for rural and remote institutions. The cloud puts talent at the doorstep of everyone.

Creating a pathway to a five nines and 24 × 7 × 365 environment: This is simply not possible any other way – unless someone gives a huge donation to an institution and decrees it must all be used for IT.

Cloud can also assist in all of the demand areas that are currently causing stress on IT services:

•   Business availability/disaster recovery

•   Computer labs for students: Labs take significant time and images must be customized to meet instructional needs. The cloud holds the promise of releasing IT staff from this time demand

•   Desktop support: Another significant resource consumer – accessing Software as a Service from the desktop enables the deployment of less powerful machines and also enables better control of exactly what is on the machine this reducing conflict related issues

•   Data storage

Higher Education uses a lot of data and the possibility of a cloud service that would scale on demand for a pay as you use price tag is attractive. Bandwidth availability could be an issue here but that is a topic for a future post.

•   E-mail

Many higher education institutions are using this cloud service through various service providers. Time and complexity saving from a server, storage, and application management perspective are significant.

•   ERP

All but the largest institutions make full use of their ERP systems. In British Columbia, Canada a group of colleges, universities and institutes have joined together to collaboratively use a cloud based ERP. The Administrative Systems Consortium (ASC) is a wonderful example of what can happen using the cloud and it continues to this day.

These are just some examples of how the cloud can help just one mission critical higher education business unit respond to the dilemma of increased breadth and depth of demand in an environment of declining resources. There are other areas that could also be discussed here but suffice to say that the cloud is currently helping manage IT services and the potential for growth is high.


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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada
Dave O'Leary
Dave O'Leary
Dave is a founding managing partner of REDDS Venture Investment Partners (www.reddsvip.com). His career in post-secondary education included roles as CIO, Vice-President and acting President. Dave is a member of the Practitioner Board of the Association for Computing Machinery. He chairs the ACM Practitioner Board Marketing Committee and is also a second term member of the Board's Professional Development Committee. (ACM - Association for Computing Machinery--official IFIP international member representative, largest and most respected international computing science, research, education, innovation professional association well known for their AM Turing Award (Nobel of computing) with 1 million USD prize, 1.5 millions user digital library, 2 million reach, learning center, Applicative conference, Queue magazine, 200 conferences/events, 78 publications/news, 37 Special Interest Groups). He is a board director of the Global Industry Council and the immediate Past President of the Canadian Information Processing Society of British Columbia. Dave is co-founder and director of an ISV computer technology business and is currently leading and advising start ups in the USA, China, Europe, and Canada. He serves as a task force member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and is the past chair of the Canadian National Council of Deans of Information and Communications Technology. He served two terms as a director of the Canadian National Information and Communications Technology Sector Council advising on National technology and economic strategy. Dave has appeared as a panel member in a number of Microsoft webcasts and has presented globally on the business and technical impacts of technology in training. He is the recipient (2002) of the highest national award for leadership in post-secondary education.

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