February 3, 2015
Time for today’s academic IT thought experiment. Imagine that you are starting your university from scratch. You are a university startup. You are in charge of all the technology for your university startup.
A couple of ground rules. Your startup university looks a good deal like your existing university. You have classrooms and residence halls and labs and a library and a gym and a student center. You are not starting Minerva University 2.0. In fact, everything basically looks pretty much the same as your existing university, save that you have no installed technology base.
With this thought experiment in mind, I hoping that you are in a position to talk me out of my bad academic enterprise technology ideas. Please dissuade me from the notion that if we were starting from scratch then we should be consuming all of our enterprise IT functions as a service.
Bad Argument #1 - Don’t Build A Data Center: The NYTimes is reporting that Apple is about to spend $2 billion to open a 1.3 million square foot data center in Arizona. Can your campus build a data center at anywhere near the size as Apple (or Amazon, or Google, or Microsoft…etc. etc.), realizing the cost savings that come with scale? Would any tech startup starting up in 2015 buy their own server hardware? Does a data center do anything to differentiate your university from the competition or contribute to core mission?
Why This Is May Be A Bad Argument: Saying we should get rid of our campus data centers is simplistic at best, dangerously naive at worst. Every modern higher ed infrastructure relies on a mix of onsite and cloud based servers. We have an obligation to protect confidential data, and the history of data center breaches does not give us comfort that cloud based providers will take security as seriously as us. Nor is it always the case that renting server infrastructure saves money, as many processes (such as intensive research computing) are bandwidth and computationally intensive - and may therefore be more expensive to run as a service. Not to mention redundancy and business continuity. Who wants to be solely reliant on a network connection to a cloud based server infrastructure.
Bad Argument #2 - Consume All Enterprise Software As A Service: Many campuses are already running their LMS’s and e-mail systems as cloud based services. Why should Student Information Systems (SIS) be any different? If we trust banks to hold our money, shouldn’t we trust cloud based SIS providers to keep care of our precious data? Should higher ed really be in the administrative software provisioning and customization business? Once we resolve to consume our SIS as a service, what is left? What software functions would we need to run locally that are not available as a service?
Why This Is May Be A Bad Argument: It is easy to say that we should be consuming all of our technologies as a service. The reality is that this thought experiment bears little in common with reality. We can’t simply take our existing services and act like we are starting from scratch. Our local systems are customized for good reasons - they are customized to meet business and competitive needs. It may be those customizations of our systems that provide a sustaining competitive advantage. Nor are switching costs trivial. It may be very expensive to move from a locally provisioned service to a cloud based platform. The real question should not be local or cloud, but what service provides the strongest value, reliability, redundancy, and alignment with institutional goals.
Bad Argument #3 - Run Only Virtualized Desktops or Chromebooks: Starting from campus technology zero is an opportunity to finally move away from expensive computers running their own local applications. Google estimates that the 3 year cost of ownership for a $615 PC is $6,213 as compared to $1,072 for a $249 Chromebook. The TCO gap between Chromebooks and PCs goes up substantially with more expensive computers. Don’t like Chromebooks? What about going all VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure). VDI lets everyone bring whatever device they want to campus (including iPads), while keeping the application experience consistent and secure. Viewsonic has a neat calculator comparing the TCO of 5 traditional PC’s with VDI. After 5 years your traditional PCs will have cost your school $29,500 to run, while your VDI set-up has only cost $9,335. Couldn’t you use that technology savings to invest in more important things, like teaching and research?
Why This Is May Be A Bad Argument: There is a difference between being cheap and getting value. Sure, giving everyone Chromebooks may be cheaper. But do we really want to skimp on the main tool that our faculty and staff use every single day? Is a Chromebook a true replacement for a full-fledged PC or Apple device? Going all VDI assumes that everyone has great bandwidth wherever they go. The problem is that people bring their computers home. Faculty and staff live and travel places that may not have great internet connectivity. The most expensive technology is one that can’t be used.
Where do you come down on this thought experiment?
What would you choose if you were choose if you were choosing your campus technology from a starting place of zero?
How should we imitate, and differ from, tech startups when it comes to campus technology?
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