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3 cloud focus areas for higher ed

Adopting the cloud will enable higher ed to ensure availability of services while handling students' increased demand for access
By Randy Shore, VP Delivery and Support, Kion
May 6th, 2022

Adopting the cloud will enable higher ed to ensure availability of services while handling students' increased demand for access

Students are applying to universities in ever-increasing numbers as the pandemic recedes. Ensuring the availability of services anytime, anywhere, is critical in today’s education environment, especially as larger student populations will generate more data and greater reliance on digital services. Adopting the cloud will enable universities to ensure availability of services while handling this increased demand. 

There are three main technology-based focus areas across the university: research, academics (teaching students) and administration (running the university). Each of these areas has unique challenges, but all of these can benefit from the cloud — whether to increase velocity, decrease overhead, or provide access to services and technology that would otherwise be out of reach.

Three Cloud Focus Areas for Higher Education

Research

Oftentimes, researchers need to run large and computationally demanding workloads in small bursts. Because of this, universities often have to figure out how to build, manage, and maintain solutions like HPC Clusters without addressing who will use or pay for it. By not answering these questions or designating someone to champion this as a shared initiative, university politics can often stifle the researcher’s progress.

Further, this can lead to shadow systems, “closet clusters,” or a decentralized approach to cloud that skirts security reviews, procurement policies, and governance policies. By leveraging the cloud, universities can better manage the overhead of administering a large HPC cluster, the large amount of capital needed to procure and stand up a cluster, and the shared governance problems. This will allow researchers quick and secure access to immense computing power.

In addition to the need for large, computationally demanding workloads, researchers often work with custom-developed or niche software that may not be built with security protocols at the forefront. These niche solutions may be custom built by collaborators or other experts in the field and are often determined to be too risky to install alongside university-owned and managed infrastructure due to the security risk they present. Because of this, cloud hosting some of these solutions that are very purpose-built becomes another great use case where the cloud can help accelerate research by providing the infrastructure required to host very specific applications, such as Cyberball, without putting university networks, systems, and data at risk.

Academics

The academic side of the university, especially with increased e-learning initiatives, needs to provide instruction in any subject from anywhere. When you get into more technical disciplines like physics, data sciences, and computer science or creative disciplines like journalism, broadcast reporting, or graphic design, you have students who need access to expensive software, intensive compute and storage requirements, and/or require large data sets. Students may only need access to these resources for a single semester, but this requires universities to invest in world-class computer labs requiring physical space that may be quite limited. In addition, as more disciplines introduce more and more technology, course scheduling battles grow for use of these limited computer labs.

By leveraging cloud workspaces, for example, universities can meet student demands and expectations by increasing access to these resources anytime, anywhere, and for anyone. As the requirement for physical lab spaces diminishes, this also allows universities to unlock additional revenue streams by offering both in-person degrees as well as online education programs, and to better respond when crises, like COVID-19, force more hybrid education

Administration

The administrative side of a university is similar to any corporate IT organization, and the benefits of the cloud can easily be translated to this core need. From needing fewer physical spaces (i.e.: data centers with disaster recovery regions), to needing fewer IT administrators to run and patch servers, the benefits can be exponential.

Universities can also benefit from using managed cloud services as building blocks to solve needs unique to higher education. For example, leveraging something like Amazon IVS to handle the random live video streaming needs that arise or leveraging tools like Elastic Beanstalk for a researcher to have an easy-to-use service for deploying and scaling web applications. Offering these managed services without needing to have internal experts supporting these random services/solutions can help universities find efficiency across their IT organization and help ensure that the shared services being offered align with the universities’ top priorities – security and cost.

Three Cloud Adoption Missteps

For those organizations looking to adopt and integrate to the cloud, it is imperative that you understand some common missteps. Knowing them will help to inform your decision making when it comes to undergoing your own cloud adoption.

Lack of Expertise: The Cloud Skills Gap can often cause a “you don’t know what you don’t know” syndrome at universities. While they know of the cloud, many folks don’t know the ins and outs of what it can offer to them, and are therefore less likely to solve new challenges in new ways. This often forces a mentality of lift and shift versus a more beneficial cloud migration strategy, like replatforming or rearchitecting.

Blown Budgets: Nothing stops a cloud migration faster than a blown budget. The thought of giving a cloud account — aka the key to your data center — to a student is frightening to a university. Universities teach novices, and while learning, it’s easy to do something incorrectly. Because of this, there is a fear (or a past event) of a blown budget that causes apprehension about even moving to the cloud. Without proper controls in place, this will be the argument against academic use of the cloud for the foreseeable future.

Fear of Losing Control: With the accessibility of the cloud, those who were in control, specifically procurement and IT security, can easily feel as though they have lost control. Procurement is accustomed to collecting competitive quotes, contacting vendors, receiving a purchase order, and issuing an approval of purchases. Adopting the cloud flips the procurement process on its head because it can introduce an “open checkbook” to the university where a bill will come after services are consumed and procurement is then left to determine how it will get paid. Secondly, IT security often has a hand in understanding what services are being offered, what data is out there, who has access to that data, and where things live on the network. With the cloud, however, data can be easily exposed, shared, or stored improperly without any tools or ability to scan for misconfigurations. Because of this, IT security often has a fear that it’s only a matter of time before someone accidentally exposes university data and they wouldn’t even have known the data existed in the first place.

Avoiding Missteps with Cloud Enablement

There are actions universities can take in order to avoid these missteps and maximize cloud innovation. I suggest that you first have a plan to give the appropriate balance of control and usability. Locking down the cloud too much will force folks to skirt around central IT, utilizing their purchasing cards (P-Cards) to sign up for accounts. Easing the controls too much will cause blown budgets, leaked data, and poor access controls, among other negative impacts, that will ultimately stifle the whole cloud journey for the university. This quickly turns it into a balancing act, and when organizations cannot appropriately balance these, the result is often trade-offs. This is why it’s imperative to leverage solutions that can provide that balance for you.

Find a solution that will work to ensure your cloud adoption and integration is a positive experience. Solutions should address all critical aspects of cloud governance and management, including automation and orchestration, financial management, and continuous compliance. These features help you navigate the cloud in a way that provides transparency and visibility into your cloud infrastructure while ensuring you don’t receive any surprising, and potentially budget-breaking, cloud bills or devastating security breaches.

Lastly, like all solutions that universities consider, ensure that the solution has strong user management capabilities. After all, higher education is one of the few industries where you can almost guarantee that roughly 25 percent of your user population will turn over annually.

About the Author:

Randy Shore is a seasoned IT leader with experience in multi-cloud solution architecture and design, product management and customer success. Throughout his career, he has spearheaded higher education organizations IT software development projects and refined cloud infrastructures. Prior to his role at Kion, Randy served as Director of Information Technology, Columbian College of Arts & Sciences at The George Washington University.

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