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Cloud Computing in Education: A Practitioner's View

I am one of the very fortunate IT professionals who get to work in higher education. It is a great job, something that more resembles a calling than a way to make a living. I truly love showing up every day to work at Westmont College.

This is an exciting time at the college. There are a many strategic initiatives in motion across the institution. However, as for many schools and businesses, the reality of the economic downturn has required us to think differently about how we want to improve the organization. The typical, time-honored approach would be to hire additional people to help lead new initiatives. But the reality of this economy has made all of us realize that now is not a time when we can do much hiring, and that we are all expected to do more. I myself wear many hats: My two primary areas of responsibility are leading our technology initiatives; and, directing our advancement office, including alumni and parent relations, fundraising, and the design and production of our print and digital materials.

Without creative, out-of-the-box thinking at Westmont, many of us can feel like we’re in a bit of a Catch-22 in terms of starting new projects and programs, no matter how compelling or essential we think they are. And not only can’t we hire, it isn’t even clear when things will turn around. The question becomes: How do we--without additional resources--align the college’s technology with its strategic plan and mission at a time in its history when it’s never been more important?

Looking Towards the Cloud

This challenge has motivated us to implement some very interesting cloud-computing-based initiatives in the past 15 months. I now have a practitioner’s view of cloud computing, having met very specific goals with this technology. I assure you: Cloud computing isn’t “all hype;” it really works. It’s also not a panacea, but it is mature enough now to deploy in an enterprise setting to meet concrete business needs. Cloud computing has allowed us to complete several very large projects while keeping the same staffing levels.

Case in Point: Advancement at Westmont

One specific example of how we’re using cloud-based solutions at Westmont is our capital campaign. Effective fundraising requires two things: (1) building relationships with people who are philanthropic and have a connection with the mission of your institution; and (2) remembering the law of numbers--namely the requirement to work with increasing numbers of people to achieve the desired financial result.

With the economic downturn, we do need to talk to many more potential donors than in the past to reach our fundraising goal. The enterprise resource planning (ERP) system we use did not include customer relationship management (CRM), so we didn’t have a tool in place to manage all of the prospective donor information. We looked at a few options that we would have had to install on site, but they would have exacerbated our resource challenges; for example, requiring more servers, more 24/7 support, and more updates. With our staffing levels, we didn’t have the capacity to implement any of those options.

We finally turned our attention to a cloud-based solution, and we found one that, while it is more prevalent in corporate markets, it can be easily adapted to support the campaign strategies of a private college. Because the Salesforce CRM is in the cloud, there were no servers to buy and no software to install. Essentially, it required signing up, arranging some support training for one of my staff members, training anyone who would be using the application remotely, and adapting it to be what we needed.

The only problem was that it wasn’t connected to our Datatel ERP system. We had to figure out a way to have the information collected in the Salesforce cloud fed back into our internal Datatel system to improve the quality and quantity of our data. To this end, we used an integration solution by Cast Iron Systems, which was recently acquired by IBM. It allowed us to quickly build a secure and near-real-time data connection between the Salesforce CRM and the Datatel ERP. Cast Iron sits between the two data sources and acts almost like a data cop that allows data to move bi-directionally and securely between the two applications. For example, I can be at a meeting in another city and type up my notes in the Salesforce CRM on my iPad, and within minutes this information is written into the Datatel ERP system at Westmont. With these components, we are building our information architecture.

The Cast Iron Integration Platform allows us to integrate external applications and data in the cloud with our internal systems in a way that strengthens what we’re doing by providing user-friendly access to information. If cloud-based applications aren’t integrated with internal systems, they add complexity instead of minimize it. Integration solves that problem. We don’t care where data is anymore; instead we focus on how it moves around, and on its accessibility and security.

Using a cloud-based strategy, we designed an integrated fundraising relationship management system, built a prototype, and put it into production in a little under five months. And we did this successfully, sitting with the same staffing levels.

Many Cloud Applications and A User Focus

The challenges in education today are acute; perhaps as a result there is a rising awareness of and willingness to consider cloud computing alternatives in a variety of areas. At first glance, the use of cloud applications may seem counterintuitive: How could my data be more secure in someone else’s environment than it is in my own? How could it be easier to support there rather than keeping everything within my staff? How can managing a partner be easier than managing my own team to get something done? But these questions may soon be considered backward-looking. I believe it is time to explore cloud computing further, because the maturity of cloud-based applications in many areas has definitely arrived.

Included with the advancement example above, we have completed six significant cloud-based application deployments in 12 months with no additional staff or budget. Plus, we were able to eliminate the licensing for some internal applications we had used, and we took that money and are using it elsewhere. These kinds of changes do require creative thinking and flexibility, so we learned how to succeed by becoming hyper-focused on the end-user experience.

What we’ve learned is that our staff and students want to do their computing on tablets and handheld mobile devices more than on notebook or desktop computers. To move aggressively into supporting handheld and tablet computing, it made even more sense to adopt cloud computing. So we’ve done multiple projects with Google, Postini, Cast Iron, and Salesforce--all well-financed, successful companies that are here to stay. We are leveraging their expertise in cloud computing to benefit the college. And the benefits are significant when you find applications that meet a real need for your users.

One of our first projects was to move the controller that manages our campus wireless access points from our server room, into the cloud. We invested the money we saved--by not buying additional equipment and licenses--into more wireless access points. Now we have 100 percent coverage on campus, versus 30 percent previously. A newcomer in the wireless space, Meraki, has a solid controller application living in the cloud that simplifies building and supporting a 802.11n wireless network.

We’ve also written an iPhone application that aggregates information from several places, including the Google cloud and the Westmont internal network. The app makes available all of this information via a single intuitive interface on the mobile device--an interface that many of our staff and students are already using. It has been hugely successful with students; for example, they can get real-time location information about our GPS-equipped Westmont shuttles on their iPhones.

Benefits to IT

By integrating our new cloud-based applications with our internal systems, we have benefited our IT team as well as our users. Cloud computing has freed us to change the rules in a way that gives IT at Westmont a much better chance to succeed. Our team is talented and works hard, but previously it wasn’t delivering the high level of technological services that we--and our users--expected. We could improve the efficiency of our processes, but only to a certain point. IT supports over 275 services and manages them 24/7, and in the old model, we found ourselves with no time for anything but keeping services running. And looking at peer institutions, we found out that there’s probably not a school out there that doesn’t spend 90 percent of its IT budget on the first day of the year, on recurring licenses and upgrades--leaving no money to do anything else. It has become more and more obvious to us that moving even 10 to 20 services to the cloud can save the time and budget needed to work more effectively on the innovative solutions that are so important to our institutions.

[Photos: Students in Winter Hall. Courtesy Westmont College.]

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