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Higher Ed Optimistic About Cloud Use

Higher education may have a long way to go before it's fully ready to exploit cloud computing because it doesn't fully understand it. Despite this, colleges and universities are still fairly optimistic about cloud prospects on campus.

IT leaders and staff from a representative 63 percent of institutions confessed at least a moderate level of confusion within their organizations regarding the differences between cloud computing and virtualization. At the same time, 61 percent of participants said they believe that a national cloud for higher education created by the federal government would be of benefit to their institutions and the same number believe cloud computing could drive more intra-institutional collaboration. Only slightly more than a quarter of higher ed institutions aren't pursuing cloud computing at all.

These results come out of a wide-ranging survey performed for Quest Software by Norwich University, School of Graduate and Continuing Studies. Quest sells products and services that help organizations migrate their data and applications from on premise physical environments to virtual or cloud environments. The survey is free to download with registration.

In March 2011 the survey queried three major segments of IT professionals: higher education as well as federal, and state and local governments. The higher ed segment included 211 respondents, correlating to a margin of error of 7 percent. (Disclosure: the survey used lists of names supplied by 1105 Media, the parent company of Campus Technology.)

A third of institutions cited potential cost savings as the biggest incentive for adopting cloud computing. About a third stated that the biggest barrier to public cloud adoption is vulnerability to security breaches. At the same time an equivalent number of institutions indicated that the vulnerability of cloud computing and on-campus hosting are about equal.

The hybrid model of cloud computing is more attractive to institutions for future cloud-based work than either public or private models (43 percent versus 7 percent and 18 percent, respectively). Just about half of schools are "somewhat optimistic" about the prospects of cloud computing. A comparable number among colleges and universities that have cloud work underway also report that they have no exit strategy in place should they need to move their operations to a different cloud.

Paul Christman, vice president of sales for Quest's Public Sector division, isn't surprised that so many institutions are confused by the differences between virtualization and cloud computing. He pointed out that NIST, the National Institute of Standards and Technology, is publishing multiple draft standards for public comment to address confusion in the marketplace. Those include publications 800-145 and 800-146. The first provides a definition of cloud computing; the second offers a cloud computing synopsis and recommendations.

Christman expressed concern for those cloud customers that are "diving in without an understanding of how to get back out." "They don't know how they're going to get out if the outfit providing the service is not living up to their contracted service levels," he said. Comparing the lack of an exit strategy to "Columbus burning the ships," he noted, "That shows how immature the planning cycle is, where people believe in the hype, and they're optimistic, but they don’t know how they can get back out if the public cloud provider is no longer useful. Every week you see press about another public cloud that has gone by the wayside or that has been acquired by somebody else or has done something that's surprising to their clients."

He said those perceived service provider vulnerabilities will expand interest among customers in hybrid clouds, where some information is put into the public cloud and other information--such as data for authentication--is kept private.

Another option he said higher ed may be drawn to is that of private clouds, wherein the IT organization would deliver cloud services to its own constituents inside the institution, but run its server farms using the same approaches applied by public cloud providers.

Christman offered several recommendations for campuses evaluating cloud services. First, get a solid governance model in place. "You can't expect an external provider--whether it's another portion of a university or an external contractor, a public cloud provider--to live up to expectations if you haven't articulated them," he said.

Second, get it in writing. Have contracts reviewed by people who "speak English rather than people who speak only technology." For schools that want to develop their own contract, he recommended searching for "cloud" and "cloud security" on the Educause site. "You'll find 30 or 40 sample contracts posted to start from."

Third, get a breakdown of deliverables. "I consume electricity. Would I be willing to blindly pay the bill if I didn't get the number of kilowatts I used?" he asked. That should come from the service provider, he added, but it's often very hard to obtain. If a customer doesn't know what the baseline is now, it won't know if service is getting better or worse. "The current state is usually so messed up, they're trying to throw it over the fence at somebody else. They haven't measured the cost, the [service level agreements], the throughput. If that's the case you're really setting yourself up for mixed expectations, because expectations weren't defined or measured."

Ultimately, Christman said, he advises his higher ed clients to stay optimistic. "There are some challenges around security, funding, and around access. But all those things can be tackled," he observed. "But of the three market segments in this survey, the feds are driven by mandates, the states by cost savings. But education is really driven by what this can do, what this can accomplish, and what this can't accomplish in some other way. The search for the positive [aspects of cloud computing] is really borne out in the academic side."

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