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Size Matters: How Consortia Get Better Cloud Deals

For cloud implementations, consortia can do much of the heavy lifting when it comes to due diligence and contract negotiations--and they can save schools a lot of money.

Part 1 of this two-part series on consortia and the cloud examines how the Independent Colleges of Indiana selected a cloud-storage solution. Part 2, coming in January, will explore how the Midwestern Higher Education Compact chose a cloud hosting service for more than 1,500 member institutions in 12 states.

Persuading researchers, faculty, staff, and students to shift to the cloud requires a great deal of hard-earned buy-in--as well as a long list of proven advantages. As hundreds of institutions are now discovering, they can make the list of advantages even longer when they tackle the cloud as part of a larger consortium. Size does matter, it seems.

Thanks to the cost efficiency of purchasing for multiple campuses, consortia such as the Independent Colleges of Indiana can offer schoolwide cloud solutions for members that would otherwise be financially out of reach. And with such obvious cost benefits, member schools, which vary greatly in their level of cloud-readiness and adoption, have little reason not to implement the solutions on offer--or, at least, try them out.

With these benefits in mind, nonprofit ICI recently signed on with Nirvanix, a cloud-storage service provider, to give its 31 member schools, including the University of Notre Dame, Butler University, and DePauw University, access to the Nirvanix Cloud Storage Network for cloud-based backup service. 

"As the cost of higher education continues to rise, it's clear that these institutions need to cut costs in areas that are not directly related to serving students," said Dru Borden, chief strategy officer at Nirvanix. "IT infrastructure is one of those areas, and the cloud model provides an ideal solution. ICI and its member institutions are on the leading edge among higher education institutions in the paradigm change to harnessing the power and economics of the cloud."

With approximately 90,000 students (about 20 percent of all students statewide), the ICI schools anticipate utilizing hundreds of terabytes of cloud storage in less than a year. The sheer size of the undertaking--including both the number of users and the amount of data being backed-up--does pose some rollout challenges, although the interconnectedness of ICI member schools has eliminated some of the complexity. "The IT leaders of our member institutions are particularly collaborative," noted Robert Hodge, executive director of collaborative services for ICI. "That provides the means by which we can work so well together in IT while competing fiercely on the ball field."

One of the challenges is ensuring that valuable data is secure and readily available for all campus audiences in the face of the failure, loss, corruption, or destruction of traditional storage solutions. For a consortium such as ICI, the solution has to be robust yet flexible enough to address the multiple needs of its various stakeholders.

A consortium's core goals must also be taken into account. One of four main objectives of ICI, for example, is to "promote policies and activities which strengthen the financial and institutional resources of the member schools to better serve students." Achieving economies of scale are paramount to reaching this goal. In Hodge's view, the acid test for ICI is determining whether an agreement provides better terms and conditions for its members than what a member institution could obtain on the street by itself.

"We found a solution with Nirvanix that is both technically superior to what campuses were doing on their own, and financially quite workable," he explained. "Other vendors sell storage. Nirvanix provided a solution, right-sizing the offering to the needs of small private colleges and pricing the solution for the consortium as a whole. In tornado country, this provides some campuses with a sorely needed ability to back up data off campus."

Several other benefits sold ICI on the Nirvanix solution, including the ability for schools to encrypt data locally before moving it to the cloud, ensuring that they adhere to privacy and confidentiality policies and remain FERPA compliant.

Additionally, ICI members don't have to scrap their investments in existing backup solutions. "The cloud-based backup solution allows campuses to maintain their existing backup software (such as Symantec, CommVault and CA Arcserve) and methods, and simply point to the Nirvanix cloud as the target 'device' instead of pointing to local disk or tape," said Hodge. "Because they can de-dupe to the cloud, you're looking at 10 petabytes on tape being reduced to 1-2 petabytes in the cloud, for example."

Allaying College Concerns
Any move to the cloud invariably raises concerns on campuses: Questions about security, cost, performance, and latency arise. Rather than having each school investigate these issues itself--a time-consuming and potentially costly exercise--ICI performed much of the due diligence on behalf of its members.

First, ICI assembled a task force of IT leaders from several campuses, which commissioned an outside feasibility study. It then worked with a local reseller to identify possible solutions. After Nirvanix was selected, ICI shouldered the responsibility of crafting a single master contract and end-user agreement for all member institutions. Next, ICI enlisted the help of one of its larger member institutions to carry out a thorough proof of concept of the technology and bandwidth. As a result, ICI can offer cloud backup to all members without a lot of redundant effort on their part.

"This is a cultural shift for colleges that are used to doing much for themselves," noted Hodge. "This is also a change in technology." He suggests that any consortia considering large-scale rollouts perform their due diligence, and then collaborate with others to learn, share the load, and gain common benefits. "Much goes back to an African proverb," he continued. "'If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.' Today, in private institutions across Indiana, we can do backups better together than our members can do individually, thus providing them the time and resources to focus on what differentiates them."

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