Diving Into the Cloud | Feature

What Is the Cloud?

The easiest way to understand the cloud is to think of it as a utility, like electricity. When you plug a device into a wall outlet, electricity flows. You didn't generate the electricity yourself. In fact, you probably have no idea where the electricity was generated. It's just there when you want it. All you care about is that your device works.

Cloud computing works on the same principle. Through an internet connection (the equivalent of an electrical outlet), you can access whatever applications, files, or data you have opted to store in the cloud--anytime, anywhere, from any device. How it gets to you and where it's stored are not your concern (well, for most people they're not).

The potential benefits of this approach are enormous. To stick with the electricity analogy, if your IT department is still pre-cloud, it's running the equivalent of its own generator. And with that comes a load of responsibility: Generators break, they run out of fuel, they need to be serviced, and--if demand for power increases--new ones need to be bought and brought online.

The cloud frees IT from the tech equivalent of all that. Because, just like power companies, cloud providers are the ones who are responsible for all maintenance, infrastructure, and repair. They are responsible for meeting surges in demand, and ensuring that service is reliable.


Source: CDW-G 2011 Cloud Computing Tracking Poll (based on responses from 150 higher ed IT professionals)

The analogy to electricity is a little simplistic, because cloud computing actually represents more than one type of service. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to compare cloud computing to all the utilities hooked up to your house: electricity, water, and gas. In the case of cloud computing, there are three basic types of service (as defined by the National Institute of Standards and Technology): software as a service (SaaS); infrastructure as a service (IaaS); and platform as a service (PaaS).

Software as a Service
Ever used Gmail? How about Yahoo Mail? If so, you've used software as a service. In fact, many people have been using the cloud for a long time without ever quite realizing it. For some reason, web-based applications like these haven't registered with most users as being "cloud." Only when applications like Google Docs replace software that has traditionally been locked inside the PC do people seem to twig to the cloud angle.

Quite simply, SaaS is a software application hosted in a central location and delivered via a web browser or other thin client. Rather than purchase and install the application on individual computers, a school simply pays a subscription fee to a service provider. Users--whether students or employees--just log on to access the application.

What Is a Thin Client?
A thin client is a computer or software program that can only work in a networked (or cloud) environment, because it relies on a more powerful computer to do most of the processing work. It's got enough oomph to start up, but after that it looks to its bigger friend for everything else. Think of it as a politically correct term for what used to be called a dumb terminal.

To the end user, the experience is essentially the same as if the application were installed on the user's hard drive or the university's internal network. By having the application delivered as a service, however, students can work on assignments from any location; HR managers can do payroll from the comfort of their living rooms; teachers can work on lesson plans after hours. What's more, users can utilize different devices without having to tote around thumb drives to port over updates, since the contents of the project are stored in the cloud.

And, from an IT perspective, there's a beautiful upside: No longer do you have to update software on machines scattered around campus. No more patches, no databases tracking installs and software updates. And the nightmare of keeping track of thousands of software licenses? Gone.

Most often, SaaS is associated with business applications such as accounting, customer relationship management, and human resource management, but more consumer-focused applications are coming online all the time. Google paved the way with its popular Google Apps for Education, which has been adopted as the de facto business productivity suite by a number of colleges and universities.

In late June, Microsoft rolled out Microsoft Office 365, which includes a cloud-based version of its popular Office suite, in addition to its Exchange e-mail and SharePoint collaboration application. Although the cloud-based offering was not yet available for the education market as press time, Microsoft does offer a similar suite of tools via the cloud through its popular Live@edu service. At some point, the company plans to transition Live@edu to the Office 365 platform, although a date has not yet been set.

76% of higher ed cloud users have reduced the cost of applications moved to the cloud, with an average savings of 21%.
Source: CDW-G 2011 Cloud Computing Tracking Poll (based on responses from 150 higher ed IT professionals)

Infrastructure as a Service
Think of IaaS as an outsourced data center with benefits. And limitless capacity. Storage, hardware, servers, and networking are all owned by a third-party provider that is responsible for the maintenance, operations, and housing.

Billing is handled monthly using the utility model (remember the electricity analogy?). Just as the electric company has a meter on your house to measure usage, cloud providers meter your computing usage--and you pay only for what you use. So, instead of buying a server that might run at 15 percent capacity, for example, you pay only for the 15 percent you use.

This pay-as-you-go model can provide a tremendous cost advantage for universities and colleges, which see demand for computing power wax and wane over time. Instead of buying, maintaining, and housing servers to meet those periods of peak demand, schools can use the cloud to scale up or down as needed, without the need to purchase any hardware themselves. It's more efficient.

In higher ed, IaaS in a private cloud formation is popular with departments and schools within research universities that need extra computing power and storage but don't want the hassle of maintaining their own infrastructure.

Platform as a Service
PaaS is a term used to describe a software-development platform that is stored in the cloud and can be accessed via a web browser. It makes a variety of programming languages, operating systems, and tools available to developers, saving them the cost of purchasing and installing everything themselves.

Given the unique character of institutions in higher ed, it's not unusual for colleges and universities to build their own software tools, rather than implement an off-the-rack solution. PaaS offers schools a development path that can dramatically reduce the time to launch--and save money. The University of San Francisco (CA), for example, implemented a customized service desk application in just three months, using PaaS provider ServiceNow.

It's important to understand that each development platform is different. If an institution develops its applications on a closed PaaS platform, there is a danger of vendor lock-in, since it may not be easy to migrate to a different platform. One way to sidestep the issue is to go with an open source PaaS, such as Red Hat's OpenShift or VMware's Cloud Foundry.