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Small Colleges Take Giant Steps into the Cloud

Small schools with limited IT resources are discovering that cloud-based services can give them a competitive edge.

With technology assuming an ever-greater role on campuses nationwide, IT shops are struggling to handle the increased demand for services. While cloud-based computing services are an attractive solution for midsize and large schools, many smaller institutions have been wary about the opportunities, in part because they often lack the ability to do extensive due diligence. That may be changing, however, as schools discover the collective power of consortia (see Contracting for Cloud Services on a Massive Scale), the cost-benefit equation improves, and cloud vendors start to offer turnkey solutions.

Naropa University (CO) is a case in point. A nonprofit, Buddhist-inspired college in Boulder, CO, Naropa operates both undergraduate and graduate programs for about 1,100 students. Offering programs such as the Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics, Naropa seems an unlikely candidate for cutting-edge IT solutions, yet the school is an old cloud hand. It started its transition to cloud services back in 2007 when it moved student e-mail to Google, and last year finished migrating its ERP services to the cloud.

The impetus for the move was something with which many schools can identify: Its data center was not up to snuff. "The logistical implications of a data center overhaul were unavoidable and impractical," recalled Dave Edminster, Naropa's IT director. "We needed to solve our current cooling and power issues, not to mention address our future needs, ASAP."

Even though Naropa has a centralized IT department with considerable industry experience, its limited resources were not sufficient to pull off--and pay for--a huge data center upgrade. In weighing the options, Edminister recognized that adding full- or even part-time employees would cost as much as a hosting solution. Once the monumental costs of powering and cooling the existing data center were factored in, the option of shifting a large chunk of IT services to the cloud became a clear winner.

5 Tips for a Smooth Cloud Migration
Dave Edminster, IT director at Naropa University (CO) offers five tips to help small schools ease into the cloud. "Having this information available early on is far preferable to having to discover the process firsthand at 3 a.m. when something goes wrong," he said.

  • Analyze your Needs: Determine your school's exact problems and find out precisely how a hosted solution can help.
  • Develop a Plan: Your migration plan should be practical, logical, and well thought out.
  • Expect Adjustments: You're likely to encounter problems along the way, so expect the plan to change--frequently.  
  • Establish a Clear Channel of Communication: Involve all parties early, so everyone knows who's responsible for what and how to get hold of each other quickly.
  • Understand All the Service Level Agreements: Learn how to work with the hosting provider and any other partner organizations involved. In particular, learn the correct method for submitting a trouble ticket and share it with your team.

But the decision to move to the cloud went beyond dollars and cents. In Edminster's view, the shift allowed him to provide his constituents with continued, excellent service. "While certainly an important factor, in some ways the budget wasn't the primary driver behind the decision to undertake this migration," he said. "Manpower, available resources, and logistics were."

So how did Naropa find its way through the fog of hyped claims that plague so many cloud offerings? Carefully. The school eventually selected CampusEAI Consortium's CampusCloud for its hosting needs, but significant work was needed to make the transition. "We had an absolutely huge punch list," recalled Edminster.

To ready the campus for its cloud migration, Naropa IT took on several projects, including the creation of a site-to-site VPN connection between environments and executing network changes throughout the infrastructure to accommodate the new hosted cloud environment--all while maintaining local network discovery and accessibility.

Five years into its cloud migration, Naropa is not looking back. It has already transitioned staff and faculty e-mail, a tertiary domain controller, and both primary and secondary web servers. The school is also considering a cloud-based document-hosting solution, although this project is in its infancy.

Ramping Up Online Efforts
Naropa's move to the cloud has helped keep its campus operations in Boulder humming. But another competitive frontline is emerging in distance learning, with many schools aggressively ramping up their online offerings. For resource-strapped smaller schools--and even online startups--the cloud offers them a chance to compete without burdensome capital outlays.

That's certainly the strategy being pursued by Azusa Pacific Online University, a two-year-old startup up that enrolled 400 students this school year. Affiliated with Azusa Pacific University, an evangelical Christian university near Los Angeles, APOU utilizes cloud solutions for all technology services, from website hosting to telecommunications. Key resources include a Jenzabar student information system (plus system and database administrative support); a Moodle learning management system hosted by Moodlerooms; and faculty, staff, and student e-mail, as well as calendaring and document sharing, from Google Apps for Education.

 "We believe that by utilizing emerging technologies and solutions, we can offer quality academic programs, excellent service, and a sustainable economic delivery system," said Don Davis, who serves as both APU's vice president and chief information officer as well as APOU's vice president and chief operations officer.

In today's economy, cost is always going to be a major factor in any calculus about moving to the cloud, but the ability to move quickly and maintain agility was almost as important. "For APOU, the use of hosted services allowed us to meet aggressive timelines and achieve our cost-model strategy, which is to tie operational costs to unit dollars," explained Davis. "So, as we grow, our infrastructure can grow with us in a managed manner versus one requiring large capital outlay."

Because APOU is a start-up, it was absolutely critical for IT infrastructure to become operational quickly. Davis believes that the rapid-deployment methodologies offered by hosted services allowed software configuration to begin in record time.

The turnkey nature of some cloud services also provided a cost benefit--and eased a litany of concerns. "Jenzabar provided our managed SIS, along with the hardware, software, and personnel for us to run Jenzabar EX and JICS," noted Davis. "We did not have to worry about hiring a system admin or a database administrator. We did not have to worry about building out a data center or purchasing equipment and software for such services as backup, UPS, or HVAC. The ability to have disaster recovery and business continuity out of the box added to the overall value and ROI of this service."

Davis believes that IT departments, regardless of size, are all dealing with how to become better strategic partners and add value to their institutions. "In my opinion, IT is being asked to provide system thinking (technology and process) leadership," noted Davis. "Of course, to be a strategic partner, the IT operations must be stable and reliable. As resources are tight, shifting services to the cloud helps us be just that."

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