Published on 2015/11/13
The EvoLLLution | Cloud Services Provide Sky-High Business Outcomes
It would be immensely difficult and expensive to achieve the convenience and flexibility available in the cloud through on-premises tools, and would ultimately detract from the institution’s core business of educating students.

Cloud-hosted tools and services are popping up across the higher education ecosystem but many leaders look at these tools and think, “we could build that on-site.” Unfortunately, this approach does not allow institutions to take advantage of the opportunities of the cloud and, ultimately, can end up being more expensive than the initial partnership may have been. In this interview, Luke Stevens shares his thoughts on some of the key advantages offered by the cloud and discusses the value of working with strategic partners.

The EvoLLLution (Evo): How is Berklee Online using cloud technologies to improve its business processes and outcomes?

Luke Stevens (LS): Berklee Online uses cloud technologies for its entire infrastructure, and we use Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) for third-party applications wherever possible to support our business. We have moved away from homegrown systems over the last 15 years into using as many top-shelf, third-party systems that we can.

For our internal work our system is one that we’ve developed and support, but we host it on the cloud now. We have no physical asset servers that we manage ourselves. That reduces our total overhead and spending on infrastructure and gives us a level of flexibility to grow as we need to.

Evo: How do these process improvements improve the student experience?

LS: The most important thing in the student experience is that the system is there when they want it. We need to maximize our uptime. We never have to take systems down for maintenance. In essence, the system needs to be as reliable as possible. This is partly an administrative benefit but a huge student experience issue as well.

When we started moving our services from locally hosted servers into the cloud we were able to expand our capacity without expanding our costs to have multiple redundant systems. This means if one goes down, the website is up, the online classes are still up; the student experience is unaffected. It gives us resiliency.

There’s another way this improves the student experience, but it’s not as obvious. We’re in the process of developing some new online tools for students and, because of the way we’re set up, we can easily create multiple versions of the same product. We have a testing server and we can repeat the infrastructure over and over quite easily. That’s difficult to do with physical hardware and that allows us to iterate in an agile way to get feedback as we go.

Evo: What would it take to replicate the service and convenience available from cloud-hosted administrative systems from an on-premises hosted model?

LS: Some of the virtualization that we do in cloud services we could do in a locally hosted system, but we would eventually hit a cap without adding more machines. There’s a hardware cap. We would need at least two more systems people to manage the type of growth we’re expecting.

We’re moving towards an on-demand infrastructure where we can spin out new versions of servers, add redundancies and add extra copies of our infrastructure to increase uptime.

While you can do some of that with a locally hosted system with virtualization, you’re essentially doing it with the limitation of physical machines. That means you need to have someone who can hook up new machines and build out your infrastructure.

The scale is where we benefit the most from the cloud.

Evo: What do you and your colleagues look for when it comes to disaster recovery contingencies from cloud providers?

LS: Providers are constantly evolving their infrastructures and it’s our job to stay current with those changes and use the best available tools as we go. What that has given us is ways to reduce costs, primarily, as we take advantage of new technologies and also to make our infrastructure growth more on-demand.

We can have software being hosted on the east coast and, in case of disaster, we can build it again on-demand on the west coast or somewhere else.

Disaster recovery is really about reactivity. We have the option to run multiple instances in all these different physical locations but, as we’re staying current with what our cloud services provide, we’re able to create these things on demand. This means we don’t have to run all these redundant servers we don’t need, but as soon as we need it we can get it.

That, to me, is one of the biggest wins of the cloud-based tools. It untethers you from the physical location in a way that gives you a quick bounce-back from any issue.

Evo: How do you see cloud-hosted systems and services evolving and growing in the postsecondary space over time?

LS: A lot of higher education institutions have a significant investment in their physical infrastructure and systems they’ve been running for 10 or even 20 years. This means they’re not able, in a short amount of time, to just move to a cloud-based solution. They have a staff that’s well trained on their systems and it may be the right fit for them because it’s what they know.

As people iterate through their major systems—their SISs and ERPs—and go to the next generation of software, they will have more options and be able to choose from cloud-hosted services in a way that they don’t have right now. Especially for smaller institutions, they don’t have the resources to rebuild everything in the cloud.

It really takes a generation revving for the replacement a major infrastructural system to give some institutions the choice to go with whatever is the best technology today.

Some of those timeframes can be really challenging for higher education because you can’t disrupt the student and you can’t disrupt the office and you have 20 years of data stored.

One thing we’re seeing is that, the more these technologies become flexible, the on-ramps become easier. It becomes easier and faster to migrate your data and build out the systems. In the higher ed space, more of the major data service providers and software providers for business, administration and student management are releasing cloud-based solutions.

This is making some legacy vendors appealing to existing clients as they can stay with their vendor and move to the cloud-based system, which saves costs in the long run and saves the institution from having to do a major migration.

Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the business advantages that institutions gain from using cloud-hosted systems and services?

LS: The story that I tell folks about what we’re doing here is that Berklee Online is a small office. But using these cloud-based services allows us to focus on student education and experience, and deliver those in the best way we can. We’re able to do that because we don’t build things that already exist. We’re trying not to solve problems that are already solved.

Leveraging these cutting edge technologies rather than having to invest and build them ourselves allows us to focus on our core skill, which is teaching music online.

That’s the big win for us.

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Key Takeaways

  • Cloud-hosted systems provide institutions the scalability they need to be able to develop new and innovative programs and services without having to invest in physical infrastructure.
  • Trying to replicate the convenience and flexibility of a cloud-hosted system on-premises would require a major investment in machines and there is a hardware cap on growth.
  • By working with vendors and taking advantage of the cloud, institutions can focus on their core product of providing a great student experience.

Readers Comments

Sonja Maldonado 2015/11/13 at 8:21 am

At this point in the game it feels like spending the time and energy to build your own systems is tantamount to moving backward. Instead of keeping up and constantly improving the technology with which you serve your students, you’re actually moving away from it.

Gerard Yates 2015/11/13 at 10:42 am

It’s also getting harder to keep up with the expertise required to run these new technologies. Pretty soon it’s going to be foolish not to spend your resources on the people who are the experts in these emerging fields. The cost of hiring new staff or constantly training existing personnel just isn’t worth it anymore.

Olivia Hardy 2015/11/13 at 2:24 pm

I think that last bit of the article is the most important. Yes, it makes financial sense to move to the cloud, no it will not solve all your problems and it may even cost you money off the bat, but in the end it allows you to focus your resources on what you do best rather than trying to keep up in the race to be ahead of the latest IT development.

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