Hope or Hype on the Cloud

November 5, 2009

DENVER — Meeting in the Mile High City, it was inevitable that the 2009 Educause Conference would contain a discussion about clouds.

When Melissa Woo, director of cyberstructure research at the University of Wisconsin at Milwaukee, and Michael Dieckmann, CIO of the University of West Florida, squared off in a debate over the merits of outsourcing campus tech systems to “the cloud,” they weren't talking about weather clouds. But for many higher-ed technologists, storing information on off-site systems known as "the cloud" can be just as ominous.

Woo, who took the anti-cloud position, said that just because higher education is moving en masse toward outsourcing services such as e-mail and data management to external providers does not necessarily mean it is moving in the right direction.

“I’m not sure why every conversation about cloud computing always has to do with 'When?' ” Woo said. “Why aren’t we asking, 'Why?' ”

She cited recent Gmail outages and an anecdote from an organization she had advised who had said a cloud storage provider lost its data. “There are security risks, there are privacy risks — where is that student data being stored? Where is that research data being stored? …. How is the private sector going to feel when we can’t guarantee that our research data our faculty are generating for them is safe?”

Dieckmann laid out the pro side first from an economic perspective, noting that economy has become a watchword as many IT departments seek to maintain a high level of service even as their budgets are pared down. “There are massive economies of scale that have evolved in cloud computing that are going to drive many of these cloud solutions to the most cost-effective way for us to provide services for our institutions,” he said.

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“The issue is really at what point in the evolution of a service do you get to the point where you really have to question, 'Why are we doing this in-house if it can be provided just as well or even better externally, especially if the economics favor it?' ” Dieckmann added.

But Woo would not be sold on the economics argument without hard evidence. She cited a report (not specific to higher education) released in April by the consulting firm McKinsey and Company that said in some cases it is not more cost-effective to outsource to the cloud.

“How many of you here,” she said, addressing the packed room, “really think you have a good idea what your cost of your custom services is?” Only a few people raised their hands. “We don’t even have a basis for comparison!” she continued. “…I keep hearing about cost-effectiveness, but do we really have any data to bear that out?”

Woo suggested that it is possible that by outsourcing to cloud-based companies, colleges might merely be shifting costs, rather than conserving them. Furthermore, she said, cost should not be the be-all and end-all. She cited a speech given that morning by best-selling management guru Jim Collins, who said that the prime difference between running a business and running a college is that at colleges the bottom line is not defined by profit and loss but mission and identity.

“How do we differentiate ourselves? How do we provide identity to our campuses?” Woo asked. At Wisconsin, she said, “We’ve chosen to keep our e-mail and calendar system in-house, as an internal cloud … because we believe it helped to build a sense of community. And building that sense of community is consistent with one of our goals on campus, and that’s retention.”

As an example, she said the Milwaukee campus has used its on-site e-mail product, Zimbra, to make extension features, such as event calendars that different campus organizations can customize and students can subscribe to.

Dieckmann countered by pointing out that many cloud products offer similar customization options. “If the tool itself allows that level of integration and that level of customization, and it can run in the cloud with those capabilities, why does it have to be on our infrastructure?”

“I think we have to be careful not to confuse the tool with the activities happening using that tool,” Dieckmann said. Colleges often make the mistake of conflating these when trying to decide how they can differentiate themselves — particularly their e-learning platforms, their Web portals, and CRM information systems — from those of their peers, he said; they do not realize that just because multiple institutions are using the same set of tools (in this case, cloud services) does not mean they have to use them in the same way.

But for Woo, the trust issue lingered. When Dieckmann compared colleges entrusting their information systems to external providers to the original move to disparate parts of college campuses entrusting their information systems to centralized IT departments, Woo said there is a major difference between trusting fellow college employees and trusting a hired company.

“The transfer from ‘edge’ IT to central IT, we actually had to have their trust,” she said. “And that’s the issue with going into the cloud.”

During the debate, the moderator asked audience members for a show of hands on their views, and more hands were shown in favor of cloud computing, but healthy minorities were skeptical or undecided.

Christine Sexton, a Sheffield University technologist who had flown all the way from Britain for the conference, said in an interview that she sided with the pro-cloud crowd. “I think we all have to trust vendors,” she said. “We all have to trust Microsoft and we all have to trust Google, and we have to trust Blackboard. You just have to trust them to do it.”

And if a cloud vendor betrays that trust, colleges can vote with their feet — and their mouths. “I think one of the questions that was raised was the come-back if they don’t deliver… well, the come-back is reputation, more than anything. And it always has been. I don’t think it’s any different for the cloud-based services.”

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