IT Trends

IT on Demand: The Pros and Cons of Cloud Computing in Higher Education

As technology proliferates and universities tighten their budgets, a number of schools are looking beyond the traditional "purchase and install" software options and tapping the trend known as on-demand, software as a service (SaaS), hosted, or cloud computing.

The software delivery method provides access to software and its functions remotely as a Web-based service, thus allowing organizations to access business applications at a price typically much lower than what they'd shell out for licensed applications and based on a subscription fee. Because the software is hosted remotely, on-demand also reduces the need for new hardware and the IT resources necessary to handle application installation, setup, and maintenance.

Another factor driving universities in the direction of on-demand is faster implementation times. Where a traditional purchase-and-install application might take months to install and implement, on-demand options can often be up and running within a few weeks or sooner. There's much less customization and hands-on installation with on-demand solutions. As a result, universities can go "live" and meet student needs much faster.

They can also focus on educating students, rather than running complex IT configurations and software systems. In a recent report on how IT outsourcing and SaaS are helping institutions of higher education get back to the basics, Nicole Engelbert, Datamonitor's lead analyst for education and vertical markets, said that "outsourcing specific IT tasks and/or using hosted or SaaS delivery models enables institutions to get back to basics and do what they do best: educating students and conducting research."

Brian Wolfe, partner at IT consultancy Laurus Technologies in Itasca, IL, said there are few issues that colleges should consider when making the choice between on-demand and purchase-and-install software options. Certain applications, for example, may lend themselves to the former, while others may perform optimally in a more traditional environment.

"You really need to look at your specific organization, its level of IT expertise and exactly what you're trying to accomplish," said Wolfe. "It may not make sense to use an application in a 'cloud,' for example, if there's a way to carve up a division of labor and let your IT department handle it."

The answer doesn't always have to be clear-cut, said Wolfe, and can be approached from a "hybrid" angle. The university that lacks a robust facilities management system for electrical power and HVAC, for example, may opt to have those systems hosted offsite in an on-demand fashion, yet retain its own staff to handle the application-level management.

"This can be a great option for universities that don't have their own data centers, which are very expensive to build and maintain," said Wolfe. "The school gains access to services that are in a completely different league from anything the institution could fund itself from the service provider, and on a subscription basis."

The University of San Francisco gained those advantages earlier this year when the institution migrated over to an on-demand, Web-based data backup system. When deciding between an in-house system and the SaaS options, Walter Petruska, information security officer, asked himself questions like: Is this a core service that we, as a school, handle? "The answer was 'of course not,'" Petruska explained. "It really didn't make sense to spend our limited capital on it."

Also taken into consideration was the amount of time USF's staff would have to allocate to maintaining and running an in-house backup system and the fact that the data backed up onsite wouldn't be safe in the case of fire or other disaster. "For us," said Petruska, "having all of that data safely tucked away elsewhere is a good thing."

According to Wolfe, data volume also comes into play when deciding between on-demand and traditional license options. "The more manageable the data quantities, the more an on-demand model would make sense," he said. "In cases where schools are dealing with large volumes of data, however (such as a data backup system), then it may make more sense to keep the application in-house."

Universities should also consider the vendor's security measures before making that critical decision, as not all companies may be on the same level as the institution in terms of data and information security.

On the other hand, some vendors' security measures may actually exceed what the university is currently using. The best approach is to educate yourself on what specific security measures will be in place to protect the information that will reside in the "cloud" environment, and thoroughly evaluate on-demand vendors and their service offerings before deciding on the best possible option.

Go into it with a strategic plan in mind, Wolfe added, and you'll be better equipped to make the right decision between on-demand and a traditional software license purchase. Look at what's most important to your school: Are you looking to increase enrollment? Provide better IT infrastructure for current students and faculty? Better manage physical assets such as buildings and classrooms?

"Look at what's most important to your school and how technology will help you reach those goals," said Wolfe. "Then ask yourself whether you want your own staff to drive and maintain these initiatives, whether you want to offload it to someone else, or if a hybrid is the best option for your university."

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