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Pioneering Campus CIOs Say Necessity Drives Shift to Cloud

A recent survey of campus IT leaders suggested that most colleges and universities are still gun shy about cloud computing. Yet if attendance at conference meetings is any gauge, there is widespread curiosity about the experience of early adopters.

The 2011 Campus Computing Project survey found that although most campuses have moved student e-mail into the cloud, fewer than 10 percent have deployed cloud storage, enterprise resource planning, or learning management systems. Yet an Oct. 19 session at the Educause 2011 conference last week featuring four chief information officers with some cloud experience drew a sizeable crowd who asked lots of questions.

For some campuses, necessity is the mother of innovation. Reed Sheard, vice president for college advancement and CIO at Westmont College, a liberal arts school in Santa Barbara, CA, said funding issues and a devastating wildfire shifted his priorities.

"We had five budget cuts and then lost 22 structures in the fire," he said, yet a strategic imperative to improve the school's technology alignment remained. "I realized that if we kept doing things the same way we had been, I would not succeed," he said. I had to think about cloud computing."

Westmont is now on its 13th cloud project in the last two and a half years. "Not because it's a buzzword or cool," Sheard stressed. "It was out of necessity."

For instance, Westmont now uses Salesforce.com to manage fundraising activities.

"We deployed it in a matter of a few days," he added, "and it synchronizes with our core legacy system. It is a great tool."

Loretta Early, vice president and CIO at the University of Oklahoma, which has also done pilot projects with Salesforce.com, is taking a more measured approach to the cloud as it develops three shared service centers.

"It has to be tied to the culture of the university and what they are prepared to accept as far as data being off premise," she said. "We are getting our IT organization up to speed on assessing risk and advising constituents on potential benefits in terms of increasing capacity and agility," she said. As Oklahoma looks at refreshing systems, cloud services will increasingly be one of the options. "We have to look at what opportunity it offers to do things we could not do otherwise," Early said.

Like Westmont's Sheard, Ann Hill Duin said the University of Minnesota's move to the cloud was a matter of necessity. The university's interim vice president and CIO, Hill Duin said the central IT organization has faced a "perfect storm" of budget cuts and an increase in demand for services.

"At UM, we stay in close contact each dean, and each IT leader," she said. "One common theme we were hearing in every meeting was, 'When are we going to use Google?'"

Today, approximately 80,000 students, faculty and staff use Google apps, and it is used as UM's campus calendar. Salesforce.com is being used to manage relations with 40,000 prospective students. "It is changing the way we manage technology," she said. "We no longer have to gather business processes and functional requirements for long development efforts."

Going forward, she said, when UM's IT leaders inventory services, including ERP, one of the first questions asked will be: What should be local, and what should be cloud?

Russel Kaurloto, associate CIO for IT and operations at the University of Southern California, said USC is taking a multifaceted approach to the cloud. He said applications and services that have become commodities, such as e-mail, are being moved out to the cloud in order to focus on services that can differentiate the IT department. The university is deploying a cloud solution from Workday for human resources and payroll. He noted that people are often concerned about the exit strategy when working with cloud providers.

"People should realize that the exit strategy is probably not going to be bring it back in-house," Kaurloto said. "It is going to be finding another cloud provider."

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