IT Trends | Q&A

A Community Cloud Strategy for the Education Enterprise

An interview with Virginia Community College System Enterprise Services Director Matt Lawson

As the director of enterprise services at the Virginia Community College System, Matt Lawson has seen his institution's legacy enterprise systems and services transformed through the implementation of the system's cloud strategies. VCCS serves a large and diverse population and comprises 23 colleges, 40 campuses, and many satellite locations. The scale and distribution of enterprise services at VCCS offers a unique opportunity for the institution to leverage a community cloud strategy, both for cost efficiencies and for improved services.

Campus Technology asked Lawson to comment on the community cloud strategy at VCCS.

Mary Grush: We hear about private clouds, public clouds, community clouds, and hybrid clouds. How do you differentiate these strategies?

Matt Lawson: I think about the way a particular cloud service is sourced and funded on the back end. A private cloud has a sourcing mechanism by which either the organization or a third party provides a dedicated, private infrastructure for cloud services. In a public cloud, a third party will provide an infrastructure and underlying implementation such that the infrastructure is transparent to its users, though it is potentially shared among a number of customers. In the case of a community cloud, a group of organizations or individuals are bound together by a common purpose, whether it's geography, or an industry, or a set of compliance requirements. ... There's something that brings a cohort or a group together to benefit from shared cloud services. A hybrid cloud is some combination of these strategies: Your institution could determine that it needs an ecosystem that includes and combines a variety of cloud strategies.

Grush: Focusing in on the notion of a community cloud, what can you accomplish with a community cloud strategy?

Lawson: A community cloud provides an avenue for specialization. You can provide specialized services that meet the needs of the cohort or the community. And you can share costs out across a number of users to decrease the barriers of entry.

Grush: How has VCCS used the cloud, and especially a community cloud strategy to transform enterprise services?

Lawson: We've used a community cloud strategy to source enterprise level services--from administrative services like accounting or HR, to the student enrollment and management services of the student information system, to learning management systems like Blackboard--such that all of our 23 colleges have a uniform platform and we can ensure a high level of service across the state. We are using cloud-based, shared infrastructures to produce unified implementations of systems and services.

This provides a truly unified experience for all students across the state. So, for example, if a student is attending multiple colleges in different areas of the state at the same time, whether they are in the student information system or the learning management system, they can see a list of all the courses they are taking.

Grush: How would you characterize the efficiencies VCCS has achieved with a community cloud approach?

Lawson: At the VCCS our IT spend as a percentage of our overall operating expense is 2.08 percent--much less than the national average (Gartner's EXP 2009 key metrics gives a figure of 5.2 percent nationally). So we are definitely doing more with less, especially in comparison to other higher education institutions across the country. And as we look at the fiscal challenges our country faces, VCCS is living and breathing those challenges. For instance, since 2008, we have added 50,000 students, but in the same time frame we've lost a hundred million dollars in funding. We believe that the community cloud strategy has enabled us to deal with some of these fiscal challenges.

Consider the costs to run student information systems, or learning management systems--the licensing costs, the hardware costs, the data center infrastructure costs, and the staff costs--and think about running 23 separate systems versus one implementation in a community cloud. We've estimated that we've saved approximately $20 million a year with a community cloud approach.

Grush: What are some of the improved services you can offer via the community cloud?

Lawson: I'm in a central office for Virginia's community colleges, which provides enterprise infrastructure and services through a community cloud approach. We realize that there are some unique IT-based services that colleges need to provide for themselves, that we can't in a cloud-based setting. But there are key services that we have been able to provide.

One important part of our strategy is a cloud-based identity management system. We have recently deployed a directory service that allows students, faculty, and staff to use the same authentication credentials for both the enterprise services and the locally run services at their college. This addresses the question of how you cross the boundaries of cloud-provided services, community cloud-provided services, and local college-provided services. Our enterprise active directory is based on Microsoft Forefront Identity Manager and Active Directory Federation Services.

To extend that even further, we also broker services provided by the public cloud. For instance, our e-mail is a public cloud service, so we do not provide the infrastructure for that service. But we federate authentication such that all of our students have access to the public cloud-provided e-mail service. You don't give the credentials to the third party, but you establish a trust relationship with the third party.

Grush: And what are some of the infrastructure considerations for your community cloud?

Lawson: A community cloud infrastructure must be a shared, unified infrastructure that has to expand and contract as needed. Storage and virtualization play key roles in the ability to do that. NetApp is our storage provider, and we have a very scalable storage infrastructure that allows us to grow with demand and move with demand on the fly. It also enables us to do real-time data replication for disaster recovery. And it allows us to virtualize data. We have about a half a petabyte of raw storage deployed in our data centers. But if we were to put all our backups to tape, we would actually need almost 3 petabytes of tape. So that shows how we've been able to realize storage virtualization and efficiencies in the infrastructure products that we've implemented.

Grush: How are you planning to expand VCCS's community cloud going forward?

Lawson: We want to build on our successes with the student information system and the learning management system, plus we are asking ourselves if are there other services for which we could realize similar synergies and efficiencies by bringing them into a cloud model.

One of the ones we are looking at immediately is document imaging, particularly how it can help facilitate financial aid processing. Right now, each of our colleges does financial aid processing. We are asking ourselves, by bringing it into a shared, centralized cloud model, can we increase the number of financial aid awards, increase the amount of awards, and decrease the time it takes to process an award?

We are looking broadly at how we can utilize our shared cloud infrastructure to expand or enhance additional services--for example, our distance education offerings and various other services that we provide to students, faculty, and staff.

Grush: What are some implications for community cloud services, with respect to higher education in general? How can institutions benefit from your lessons learned?

Lawson: As I talk to people in the industry, I often hear, "I'd like to be where you are." But I think there is a lot of institutional inertia out there that will have to be overcome. We've found that governance is very important for us, in terms of questions like: How do we determine what services to provide? How are we going to determine a funding model for a particular service? How are we going to determine when to sunset a service? How do we determine the implications of business decisions on service implementation? Having a very clearly defined governance structure becomes critical to a successful community cloud implementation.

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