Lessons from Higher Ed’s Gradual Move to the Cloud

With higher ed IT professionals now tasked with managing and securing growing networks for online and hybrid learning, more and more universities have migrated their data centers to a cloud operating model to streamline data management and free up limited staff for other tasks. A recent report from the global analytics company Astute Analytica predicts that the global higher education cloud computing market will grow 22 percent by the turn of the decade, and this movement has IT leaders already seeing benefits in data storage and security and rethinking where their staff should focus their efforts.

Among the beneficiaries of the recent shift by universities to the cloud, and the digitization happening in education generally, are tech companies such as Ellucian, which does business in 50 different countries and offers cloud-based student information systems (SIS) and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems, supporting payroll and finance functions. According to an email from Ellucian spokeswoman Lindsay Stanley, about 2,900 institutions use its software and services, including about 80 percent of community colleges and about 66 percent of historically Black colleges and universities in the U.S.

At Wilkes University in Pennsylvania, Information Technology Services Executive Director Gerald Korea said the university recently adopted Ellucian cloud tools and moved its web presence and other local servers to AWS.

He said one of the biggest challenges in the move to the cloud was rethinking what his department does. He noted that the move allowed staff to “concentrate more on new development and customer service and away from the traditional IT tasks” such as hardware and software upgrades and system maintenance.

“For us the benefits were twofold. One, it was a cost savings in the fact that we did not have to house hardware that would eventually need to be upgraded, and because of this we could downsize our server room for additional savings,” he said, adding that this has made his IT department more efficient. “Two, we didn’t have to have a large staff to provide quality service to the university, not having to have traditional IT roles like DBAs and server admins allowed savings to the bottom line.

“I believe that the biggest lesson was adjusting to the ‘new normal,’ which was not having to worry about updates, hardware replacements, et cetera.” he added. “Having my staff rethink their roles and adjust them to more strategic and planning than maintenance was a bit of a challenge to those staff very set in their ways.”

Another major player in universities’ exodus to the cloud, IBM helps universities make this move through a variety of higher ed initiatives and ed-tech software products to better manage data storage, security and analytics. According to an email from IBM spokeswoman Carrie Bendzsa, several U.S. higher ed clients recently adopted the hybrid cloud software IBM Cloud Paks, which help to set up cloud infrastructures faster via pre-integrated, AI-powered software capabilities that users can build once and run anywhere.

Bendzsa added that the idea behind much of its cloud offerings is to give institutions full ownership of and responsibility for their data and its management, noting that even IBM as the cloud provider cannot access it, unlike some cloud providers that tend to take on security and management responsibilities for higher ed IT systems with recurring costs for institutions.

According to IBM’s Andy Rindos, head of the Research Triangle Park Center for Advanced Studies, the company also offers an IBM Cloud Satellite and IBM Cloud for Education, which he said help IT departments build, deliver and manage applications across a hybrid multicloud environment. The education platform and Paks are built on Red Hat OpenShift, which Rindos said extends consistent, on-demand, fully managed cloud services and controls across a client’s on-premises, edge and public cloud environments — even on other clouds.

“A lot of the universities we’re working with seem to be taking advantage of the traditional cloud,” he said.

Rindos said IBM has partnered recently with schools such as the University of Maryland-Baltimore County, where faculty are exploring making use of the cloud to better manage large data sets in research.

“We have moved many of our systems to the cloud — our email system, many of our internal systems are on the cloud — simply because, obviously it’s much easier for the university IT system to have support from cloud providers as opposed to managing and maintaining a large data farm,” Karuna Pande Joshi, director of UMBC’s Center for Accelerated Real Time Analytics and IT professor, said. “We also have internal data systems still on for doing research and things like that. We’ve been increasingly exploring cloud providers for our research, especially when we have large data sets to analyze, and in a cost-effective manner … I think all the university systems — especially in the U.S., but I won’t be surprised globally — are exploring this [question] of, ‘What does it mean to take education online and how do you ensure that the students are getting the best of the services and the same experiences of in-person learners?’”

Among other uses, cloud technology can help streamline communications, according to Berkeley College CIO Leonard De Botton. He said the college recently moved its phone systems to RingCentral’s cloud platform and uses a combination, or hybrid, of cloud and on-prem systems for a variety of educational and administrative functions, similar to most universities today.

“We’ve had systems onsite for years and years, and now as we look at newer systems — such as Salesforce, which is a software as a service — the ones that we are going to are all cloud-based. Office 365 is a huge player, along with Canvas, which hosts our learning management systems. Those are probably our three biggest [programs] that are in the cloud,” he said. “You still have to administer the system, but gone are the days of upgrades in the middle of the night when people aren’t on the system.”

And while migrating to the cloud for any use doesn’t come without costs, such as those for third-party data management services, Joshi and Korea said their recent moves bolstered network and data security — lifting some of those burdens off limited staff.

“When it comes to an upgrade or an outage at 2 in the morning, it’s now [the vendor’s] job to figure out why the system has gone down,” Botton added. “Obviously, companies like Salesforce and Microsoft have infinitely more resources to deal with these problems than a typical college does, even with security … and they give you a better product.”

Editor’s note: A previous version of this story misstated the number of institutions that use Ellucian’s software.


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