How SaaS IT Solutions Can Revolutionize the Research SpaceVas Vasiliadis | Director of Products, Communication and Development, University of Chicago
Information technology (IT) presents new and promising opportunities to stakeholders across the higher education spectrum, regardless of their role. Partnering with vendors to introduce systems that create effective and efficient back-end infrastructures opens up a wide array of benefits for faculty, staff and administrators; the most important of which is the capacity to allow all employees to focus on their main mission and tasks rather than trying to navigate inefficient systems. In the research space, Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) IT solutions can transform the way academics work.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): What are some of the biggest IT challenges faced by researchers?
Vas Vasiliadis (VV): There are a number of IT challenges researchers are facing, and they’re driven by the explosion in data-driven research and big data. A lot of research, conducted across disciplines, is computational in nature. This impacts how data is captured, stored, analyzed, shared with collaborators and made accessible to others in the community.
When you consider the scaling-up of data management requirements at each of those stages, the compounded effect is pretty substantial. It’s a pretty big problem and it’s actually growing a lot faster than we’re able to put solutions in place to address it.
Evo: How much time—on average—is spent on actual research, and how much is spent on the bureaucratic demands around the research after a researcher wins a grant?
VV: One survey found that, on average, researchers spend 40 percent of their time on non-active research. That’s not to say that all of their time is spent on IT-related issues, but it’s certainly not on the research, which is what the grant money is there for. That should be a red flag to a lot of folks.
Evo: How do these challenges posed by ineffective IT infrastructures impact the capacity for researchers to actually do their work?
VV: Challenges created by ineffective IT infrastructures vary across institutions. We’ve seen a number of scenarios. When you look at the larger research institutions, they typically have reasonable infrastructure for research. However, that’s only adequate at best because, while they’ve got the hardware in place and the high-speed networks, they don’t really have a lot of the software and services to effectively move and manage that data across campus and across different institutions.
The problem becomes even bigger when you look at the thousands of institutions out there who don’t have the IT budgets to put adequate infrastructure in place for research IT. There are pockets of capacity spread across the institutions, but there’s not much tying those things together into an effective end-to-end workflow that would really help researchers scale up their work.
Evo: How effective are home-grown solutions to these challenges?
VV: Oftentimes, home-grown solutions will be something like open-source software wired together in various ways. It’s typically cheap to do because it’s often done by grad students or others on the team; it’s not done as a professional software solution.
That works in the short term, but the issue is there’s no continuation. If the grad student moves on to another institution, that knowledge is not transferred. The next time they want to work with that infrastructure, someone else needs to come along and reverse-engineer it or start from scratch and build something, duplicating a lot of that work. However, that has been the approach for many universities.
Obviously there are exceptions to that, especially in some of the bigger institutions that can afford to make the investment and use commercial products out there for managing data at various levels. However, those systems aren’t cost-effective, and they don’t have the right mechanisms in place to address those requirements. They might buy their own storage system or go to Amazon and rent a bunch of storage. Then the challenge is getting the data up to their system and relying on others to pull the data down. Not to mention the cost associated with some of that. All of those things confound the problem.
In both cases, we’ve got this gap of not knitting things together effectively so they can be used by everyone.
Evo: What are the most significant advantages of going with a partner to create these kinds of IT capabilities that allow researchers to focus on their work?
VV: The cloud offers a lot of other advantages simply because of its scale that you just can’t get when you’re doing things internally. I’m not suggesting it’s a panacea. But, using SaaS rather than deploying your own software in house is really cost-effective. If you look at running your own hardware infrastructure, there’s any number of studies that show how inefficient that is relative to some of the cloud infrastructure provided.
Evo: What are the most significant benefits both for the institution and the researcher of working to actually overcome these bureaucratic and administrative issues that are caused by a lack of IT infrastructure?
VV: From the perspective of the researcher, the benefits are using time that’s spent on IT efforts to actually focus on core research. Having some of these capabilities in place also means that they can iterate faster on their work. If you’ve got the infrastructure that helps you do that, that’s really of great value. By extension, using those grant dollars more efficiently is beneficial to both researchers and the funding agencies.
From an institutional standpoint, there are a bunch of standard arguments that SaaS provides benefits. The long-term care and feeding of these systems is outsourced, it’s not just the initial installation. When you’ve got SaaS, you don’t have to worry about updates, routine maintenance, bug fixes, security patches, or any of those kinds of things; the burden is on the SaaS provider.
The other institutional advantage to partnering is that a lot of these systems are constantly evolving and delivering new capabilities. In the SaaS model you get access to those things immediately, as soon as the vendor makes them available on the service.
Evo: Is there anything you’d like to add about the importance of overcoming bureaucratic IT issues by investing in infrastructural solutions that allow people to actually focus on their main mission?
VV: What we like to think of is this notion that we really should be outsourcing and automating mundane tasks so that you can focus on value-added activity. It’s something that a lot of institutions don’t really think about consciously.
This interview has been edited for length.
Author Perspective: Administrator