Considering the Integration Impact of Cloud Service AdoptionRussell Battista Jr. | System Office Chief Information Officer, University System of New Hampshire
There has been much written about moving to the cloud over the past several years, both on the positive and negative side of the decision. Personally, I’d have to say that the experience has been mostly positive, but there are some issues to be aware of as you consider a move.
It is important to first consider the impact on your existing IT integration capabilities when looking to incorporate cloud services into your portfolio. At a basic level, you are venturing into a new relationship where you will send your university data to an external location (and possibly receive updates in return), so you’ll need to be prepared to manage the flow of data in that environment.
For universities, proper integration of all technology services (both internal and external) is the key to maintaining overall integrity of your critical data. Therefore, some up-front due diligence will help ensure a smooth transition. Here are some items to consider when contemplating moving services to a cloud platform.
What Type of Vendor Are You Dealing With?
Everyone considers themselves a cloud vendor these days, so it is important to clearly understand what is being offered. A true cloud vendor will offer some sort of software-, infrastructure- or platform-as-a-service solution to replace an existing legacy environment.
The key component in a SaaS model is that you pay by the usage (usually number of users on the system), so there are no large up front software licensing fees. On the other hand, you pay the same price annually so costs remain the same (versus paying a reduced annual maintenance fee). Here are a few items to consider:
Capital Expenditures versus Operational Expenditures
Be sure to understand where your budget is coming from. At this point in time, annual fees for cloud services are not considered to be paid from capital funds (although this is up for debate). You need to have room in your operating budget for this. This has been an active topic of discussion in many universities (and businesses for that matter).
Long-Term Data Retrieval
How do you retrieve data once the contract is terminated and how is your data protected? You don’t own the platform, but you always own your data. The vendor needs to ensure that your data is secure and accessible by no one other than your personnel. They need to also be in a highly secure data center (and preferably redundant with another location!).
How Will They Address FERPA?
FERPA laws are only in effect within the US, so it is important to first understand where their data centers are located. Oftentimes cloud vendors host outside the US, so be sure to ask. Secondly, they must have an understanding of FERPA in the event their personnel are handling your student data in any way.
This is one of the most overlooked areas in a vendor system implementation plan. Everyone is an optimist when it comes to integration, especially the vendor. I will beg you to get your ITS folks involved in these discussions so they can help sort out the complexities of the integration. I have been doing projects for a very long time and it is rare to see an integration go smoothly. This is not a problem, however, if you plan for it. Don’t wait until the last minute to begin discussing integration. Here are some items to consider:
What Types of Data Will Be Hosted On the Vendor Platform?
I have seen many vendors ask for a large amount of student data, so you need to be clear on what is needed and why. It is often easier just to simply send it all, but I tend to scrutinize what is required and only send that information.
A few other questions to this end determine how data travels between the institution and the cloud. Is this a push, pull or both? Will this be a one way feed, or are you expected to pull data back into your student information system? Why?
Vendor Link to Campus
How will the vendor connect to your environment? Will the data be encrypted, sent over the Internet, or will you establish a private VPN Tunnel to accomplish this?
Getting Everyone on the Same Page
Does everyone involved understand what is the system of record for all the data? I have seen environments where shadow systems develop in the cloud because all data is eligible to be modified. Then it is never synched up with the true system of record. Be very careful (and very afraid) about this one!
It is critically important to clearly outline the plan to start up the new system or service. Timing is always important, and that is dependent on the nature of the new system. If you are turning a system off, you’ll need to get the new system set up and redirect all the links at the appropriate time. Some items to consider:
- What is a typical timeline for similar deployments? What are some of the challenges that may delay the implementation?
- How will files be sent to the cloud vendor and be tested up through the production environment? There is nothing worse than seeing a project get delayed because the production data push failed because it was never tested.
- What is the cadence of sending files to the vendor? Will you send files hourly, daily, weekly? It will make a difference when considering your nightly job processing.
- Has the vendor signed off on the schedule and are they delivering according to the plan?
- How will the new service be introduced to your community? Is there a need for training students, faculty and staff?
- Does the vendor understand your needs or are they fixed into one generic plan for all clients? This will make or break your project so it is an important item to consider when selecting a vendor.
As part of your process, I’d like to suggest that you should not dismiss the importance of building strong relationships with your vendors. I have found when I spend enough time working through issues with vendors, I can begin to sense whether they care about our needs or theirs. I have built up some great partnerships with vendors that have enabled us to create great solutions over the years.
While these items are certainly not an exhaustive list, they are intended to give you some insight when considering a cloud platform. There are no easy answers or solutions, despite what vendors (or management for that matter) may tell you, so you have to put in the time and effort to determine whether a cloud-based solution is the right fit for your campus. I have found when I do my due diligence and spend the proper amount of time researching and interviewing, it usually works out for the best.
Author Perspective: Administrator