Higher Education Won’t Be Able To Resist The Cloud Much Longer
“The Cloud” is still a conceptual notion in higher education, creating as much confusion as it does comfort for leaders across the postsecondary space. While organizations across other industries have enthusiastically adopted cloud technologies and hosting for central systems and services, colleges and universities across the postsecondary space are lagging behind. In this interview, Navneet Johal explores some of the reasons why institutions have been slow in adopting these technologies and shares her thoughts on some of the key benefits the cloud provides that leaders should take into consideration when making decisions on adoption.
The EvoLLLution (Evo): In 2013, you wrote an article describing how higher education institutions have lagged behind other organizations in adopting cloud-hosted solutions. How much has changed in this area over the past two years?
Navneet Johal (NJ): Higher education continues to lag behind other industries when it comes to cloud computing. However, the tide is slowly but surely turning, and more institutions are moving from contemplating cloud, to committing to cloud. Institutions globally are still under budget constraints, with few funds available to develop both new and existing services. Therefore, it is for the most part understood that cloud computing is the paradigm that will enable new services without requiring huge investments in hardware, software, and infrastructure.
It is more the hype and confusion about cloud and its benefits that have created a certain degree of fear, uncertainty and doubt, and as a result, have hindered progression. Some vendors still use the terms “hosted solution” and “SaaS” interchangeably, which has caused confusion among institutions. Furthermore, not all vendors have done a great job in proving to institutions that they can fully manage the service better than the institution could. Vendors must clearly explain the definition of cloud and the benefits it can bring to help institutions move forward.
Evo: What are the three most common reasons why higher education institutions have been slow to adopt cloud-hosted services and systems?
NJ: The reasons higher education institutions have been slow to adopt cloud-hosted services and systems range from security and access to information by third parties to large, existing investments in on-premise solutions. Despite there being only a few factors that are hindering the adoption of on-demand delivery models for enterprise applications, it is important that vendors consider and develop strategies to overcome them:
1. Institutions are concerned about security and lack of control
Institutions have long been familiar with the on-premise delivery model for most applications, because it is the legacy of software and because of their need to have control over their data and information. Therefore, a number of institutions are still uncomfortable with the on-demand model, due to the lack of visibility about the way data and information is stored and secured. Security concerns are the most commonly cited reason why institutions are not interested in hosted or SaaS delivery models. Consequently, addressing enterprise security concerns has emerged as the biggest challenge in the adoption of on-demand applications.
Despite these security concerns, uptake has not been severely hindered and vendors have not been prevented from creating on-demand models for enterprise applications. This is because the data and information is, in fact, likely to be more secure with a technology vendor than it is on-premise. Vendors are providing their solutions through secure data centers that often have multiple firewalls and back-up procedures to ensure data and information is never lost. Many vendors have the resources to employ experts in data security, whereas most institutions do not. Nevertheless, vendors should provide case studies, where possible, on how institutions have switched to hosted or SaaS models and experienced a higher level of security.
2. Institutions with unique needs may have concerns about flexibility
There is still some apprehension about the ability to customize on-demand enterprise applications to meet individual institutional needs. Institutions have unique processes and a variety of needs that must be addressed by technology vendors. As some vendors have already addressed most of these needs, success today is largely determined by a vendor’s ability to provide improved service and reliability at a lower cost. This is where SaaS comes in. An on-demand service for applications should help an institution provide a better experience for students and faculty as well as save time, money, and resources. However, this has not necessarily been the case.
The SaaS model for enterprise applications has been built on the assumption that on-demand software can satisfy the majority of institutions. Based on this assumption, some SaaS vendors are delivering their on-demand solution based on a multi-tenant architecture, enabling them to support a broad installed base of customers with a single software platform. This makes the SaaS model more economical and operationally efficient. Some institutions may argue that it reduces the freedom and flexibility to customize the application to meet their specific needs. However, it would be wise for institutions to avoid customization because it is costly to maintain, and institutions hardly ever see a return on investment (ROI). Only institutions with very unique missions and programs should disqualify themselves from SaaS.
3. Large investments have already been made in on-premise delivery models
On-demand offerings are still a relatively new development in the technology market, particularly among vendors targeting higher education. Some vendors, such as Salesforce.com, are well established, and all software solution categories have a SaaS option. However, there is still reluctance among many institutions to switch to on-demand models. Due to the lack of delivery options available in the past, early adopters of technology made significant investments in their on-premise data centers and IT infrastructure. With the large investments and customizations already made, institutions are not prepared for, and cannot justify, switching to another delivery system, and changing systems would be a costly endeavor. Vendors are keeping an eye on when institutions will be looking to upgrade their current solutions, but questions remain about what to do with long-standing student information systems (SIS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) deployments that are on-premise. Should institutions move forward with a cloud strategy? The answer is yes, if it makes sense, although in many cases it does not. Institutions have the opportunity to move to the cloud but, unless the existing solution has been deployed in a relatively “vanilla” fashion, institutions will have to pay a great deal of money to a cloud services provider to maintain all of its customizations. Switching solutions simply so that they are on-demand is an insufficient reason.
Evo: How could higher education institutions benefit from taking advantage of the cloud?
NJ: There are several factors shaping the potential opportunity for cloud-based applications in higher education. Through hosted and SaaS offerings, institutions hope to increase application reliability, enhance application functionality, and lower the total cost of ownership (TCO). Potential cost savings are a compelling incentive for institutions to adopt cloud computing. With customers only paying for the services they use, cloud computing offers significant opportunities to expedite an institution’s ROI. Likewise, for many institutions, maintaining data center space and data storage capacity poses significant challenges to budgets. By enabling the sourcing of cycles and storage and the option to defer investments, such as in the construction of new data centers, institutions can shift their focus to managing operational costs and forecasting budgets more effectively. Most importantly, cloud computing allows institutional resources to refocus their energies on the core mission of higher education – teaching, learning and research.
Evo: To your mind, how might this lag in adopting cloud-hosted services and systems impact colleges and universities in the long run?
NJ: Institutions need to focus on innovation to differentiate themselves in what is an increasingly competitive industry, and the IT department should be a key partner in driving this innovation. However, if the majority of the IT department’s time and budget is spent on maintenance of on-premise applications and services, then this leaves little time for innovation. As a result, institutions will find it difficult to stay ahead of the curve. IT departments are finding it increasingly difficult to support and manage these complex systems on-premise while ensuring service levels are met for all stakeholders. Add to this the open networks that must exist within an institutional environment, plagued by unknown software applications installed by individual departments, faculty, staff and students, on a variety of devices, and it is easy to understand why maintaining the local infrastructure can be a daunting task for anyone, even those that are highly skilled.
A growing number of institutions have come to realize that providing IT services is not their core competency and draws resources and focus away from their core mission. Technology is best left in the hands of experts—technology vendors. Therefore, using alternative delivery models, such as hosted services or SaaS, or outsourcing specific IT functions to a third-party vendor, will offer a slew of benefits to institutions. Like any big change, there will initially be significant opposition to shifting from the current on-premise model to an offsite, vendor-hosted model, but the business-driven, technical reasons for moving toward hosted or SaaS delivery are outweighing the reasons for not doing so. While cloud delivery models are by no means perfect, they provide institutions with reduced costs and increased functionality, and, most importantly, allow institutional resources to refocus their energies on the core mission of higher education—teaching, learning and research. However, it is important to note that this does not mean closing down IT departments altogether. It means that they can focus not only on teaching, learning, and research, but also on supporting their institution’s use of solutions instead of just maintaining them. The IT department can conduct more training, help end users adopt best practice, and be more innovative.