Moving to the Cloud Facilitates Re-Prioritization and Differentiation
College and universities IT teams are historically understaffed and overworked. As student expectations continue to rise, though, IT teams are under more pressure than ever to deliver high levels of service that really improve the student experience while maintaining systems already in place. In this interview, Sue Workman explains how moving to the cloud can help colleges and universities reorganize their priorities to allow IT professionals to focus on the tasks that really make a difference to the institution.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): Why did Case Western Reserve University decide to transition its ERP system to a cloud-hosted model?
Sue Workman (SW): The decision to move to the cloud was made before I arrived but it was a really good one. The primary decision was made because of the resources that we were going to have to commit to updating our infrastructure and data centers in order to continue to host our ERP. It seemed to make sense to move that to the cloud.
It also really helps us with disaster recovery, in that the vendor we selected has data centers on both coasts. It’s unlikely that something will take out New Jersey and San Diego at the same time, but our redundant data center here is only a few blocks away.
It helps us to be scalable too. We can put resources to new tasks when needed. At class registration time, for example, we typically need more power. With the cloud, we can ramp up when we’re doing major tasks and ramp back down for normal activity. We don’t have to buy for the high water mark, we can buy for the usage we really need.
Evo: Would it be possible to achieve the same level of access and convenience from on-premises hosting that you and your team are gaining from the cloud?
SW: You could, but it may be more expensive to do that, though. Every institution needs to really consider what they’re really willing to risk and what they’re willing to spend in order to create that environment internally.
If funds were really unlimited you could definitely do it on-premises, but for us it seemed to be best to put the system in the cloud. Especially from a disaster recovery perspective, you have to have two data centers miles apart, which could be a huge expenditure for institutions.
Evo: If a disaster hit, what is the worst-case scenario for an institution with a poor disaster recovery infrastructure in place for its central administrative system?
SW: In a worst-case scenario, if a disaster hit and you weren’t able to recover quickly, the business of the university would probably cease for quite a long time. Students wouldn’t be able to register for classes, HR could not be done, finances could not be completed or reported upon. All business would come to a halt.
That would be disastrous to any university.
Evo: What are a few of the major drawbacks of the movement to the cloud?
SW: You really need to make sure that your contract is set so that it has terms in it that protects the institution and student data, and you need to consciously audit against that. You have to have a lot of diligence in order to make sure you’re protecting your student information the best way you can.
The major drawback of moving to the cloud is, once you’re there, it’s hard and very expensive to move back or to transition to a different cloud service. The vendor providing that cloud system basically has a noose around your neck and you have to make sure, contractually, that they can’t take advantage of that situation by raising their prices excessively, for example.
Evo: How does moving major administrative systems to the cloud impact the role of the in-house IT team?
SW: Moving to the cloud lessens the role of the infrastructure team, somewhat, but it allows us to reprioritize and shift our resources to more high-value tasks. It’s not as though we’ve ever had more than enough human resources, so it’s allowed us to outsource the standardized, common tasks and then utilize our resources for more value-adding tasks that we need in order to be very specific to Case Western Reserve University.
This does require some retraining and some shifting of responsibilities, but IT is that way all the time anyway, regardless of the shift you’re undergoing. IT has to be flexible and this is a way that we can utilize our personnel the best way possible.
Evo: What is the most important piece of advice you would share with another higher education IT leader considering moving their ERP to the cloud?
SW: The most important piece of advice I could share about moving to the cloud is that contractual obligations are different than a standard software licensing agreement. You need to make sure that you are protecting your data and that the vendor is able to protect information in a way that is appropriate. You then need to regularly audit against this agreement to make sure you’re getting the service you’re paying for.
Additionally, you need to make sure that your organization understands the impact moving to the cloud will have. Make sure that training opportunities are in place for your people and understand that there are some people who will cherish the change and others who won’t. But you need to help all your teamwork through the changes and make sure they’re prepared for their future. They shouldn’t be afraid of it. They need to see that you’re behind them and helping them to grow. Some organizations use moving to the cloud to start a reduction in workforce, but in our case we didn’t have enough human resources to begin with so we didn’t need to reduce our labor force.
Evo: Is there anything you would like to add about the unique advantages the cloud offers when it comes to central administrative systems?
SW: Cloud-hosted administrative systems really allow institutions to leverage scale. Scale, of course, means many things. It’s not just the number of processers or the storage you have. We’re starting to see some services come out of the cloud-based storage world that are really transformative. Scaling those services in a cloud-hosted model rather than forcing every institution and company to get that talent to set up those services in-house is a huge change. Setting up those services can be complex and challenging, and the individuals who can do that are in high demand. Taking advantage of these opportunities allows institutions to spend their money on value-added work rather than setting up what everybody else has.
There’s real value here. I’ve been in this business long enough that I’ve seen the pendulum go both ways; we changed everything from mainframes to personal computing back to centralized services. This new service model will really start to develop and the kind of changes we’re seeing now will really help move us along in higher education as well as in industry in general.
Author Perspective: Administrator