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IT Leaders Concerned About New Cloud Storage Limits

With many cloud storage and collaboration vendors implementing limits on free storage, colleges and universities are grappling with the impact on IT.

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In February 2021, Google announced it was planning to implement storage limits to Google Workspace (formerly known as G Suite). Other cloud storage and collaboration vendors have made similar announcements, causing IT leaders to take notice: A recent survey by the Internet2 Cloud Storage Working Group found that 30 percent of respondents are "extremely concerned" about the impact of the limits on free storage.

As Sean O'Brien, director of Internet2's NET+ Cloud Services Program, told Campus Technology in an August interview, the era of free unlimited online storage is closing.

He said NET+ reacted quickly and brought together a group of university CIOs and those who administer Google services in the higher education space to do an in-depth negotiation with Google, resulting in a business model under the NET+ Google Workspace for Education program. "It gives both Google and the universities a predictable and multi-year glide path, to move from unlimited storage to storage limits that universities will have to enforce," he said. "The NET+ community came together and solved this problem once, at scale, versus each university trying to negotiate their own individual deal with Google."

At the recent Educause Annual Conference in Philadelphia, O'Brien moderated a panel discussion by a group of IT leaders about their shift in thinking about cloud storage on their campuses, as well as the tools and policies they will need to manage the transition.

O'Brien led off by describing some of the cloud storage survey results. He noted that the issues go way beyond cost: "One of the biggest concerns we heard is whether campuses have tools to manage the storage," he said. "How do you enforce quotas? How do you work with users to migrate their storage from a content collaboration service to cold storage, or another form of a backup service?" Survey respondents agreed it is very important for individual users to be able to run their own storage reports.

Cloud vendors and storage providers often have a very enterprise focus, and they're thinking of central IT as a business that controls and manages storage, O'Brien said. But that model does not reflect reality at most colleges and universities. "Higher education looks very different," he pointed out. "Central IT doesn't move user data; someone in the Chemistry department does. That's a need that I think is unique to higher education and something we'll want to talk to vendors about."

In terms of tools, O'Brien added, what survey respondents said they want the most of anything was the ability to set quotas.

When asked what impact the storage changes are going to have on their organization, almost 50 percent of the respondents said they would need to allocate significant time and money in the short term to managing this, and 25 percent said they were going to need to make permanent changes in how they run their IT business.

One of the Educause panelists, Dave Long, associate director of enterprise instructional technology at the University of Iowa, described some of the governance challenges involved in limiting cloud storage at his institution. Previously, Iowa was hosting Panopto on premises, but moved to the cloud in 2019. There was a huge climb in storage usage in 2020, due to the pandemic when a lot of things shifted online. Iowa also added Zoom integration, so all Zoom recordings go into Panopto automatically. "One of the things we realized was that we had never deleted anything," Long said. "We've just kept everything for an indefinite period of time." To begin reducing content storage, Iowa started using Panopto's content retention tool. "We set things up so that videos with zero views after four years are automatically deleted from the system," he explained. "We turned that on in July 2020. We did a lot of governance work ahead of time to socialize the idea with our faculty and IT governance groups on campus."

A lot of faculty members have the tendency to think they need to keep the videos forever and never want to let anything go, he said. "We pulled a lot of different metrics to look at how much stuff had actually been viewed," Long explained. "We were able to get through the approval process for turning this on largely because we helped people come to the realization that we as an institution don't necessarily need to be paying money to store old videos indefinitely."

Users at Iowa have a 90-day recovery window, so if something is deleted, instructors have the ability to go back and recover that for 90 days. Colleges also have the ability to exclude certain pieces of content from the deletion process. "That helped get people over that hump of thinking they need to save everything indefinitely forever and ever," Long said.

Once the content retention tool was turned on, more than 20,000 pieces of video were deleted right away. Of those 20,000, about 40 percent had had zero views in several years. "We're paying money to store these things, and no one's watched it, nor is ever going to watch it," Long said. "Anyone that's had access to it has probably moved on from the institution and graduated or maybe they're still here, but it's no longer usable. This has been pretty impactful."

Another panelist, Jack Seuss, vice president of IT and chief information officer at University of Maryland Baltimore County, is on the Net+ negotiating team for Google Workspaces for Education. He mentioned that UMBC has three main enterprise storage platforms: Google, Microsoft and Box (as well as Panopto and some Amazon usage). "We were one of the early campuses to do Google Apps for Education," Seuss said. That became our e-mail model. We transitioned our alumni e-mail over to Google in 2015. Now we're up to 75,000 users, and we're using 1.3 petabytes in Google. That is the largest enterprise area that we're using. Microsoft came in as part of our Microsoft enterprise agreement that we do with the State of Maryland, with relatively minor usage — 50 to 100 terabytes is there. Box was really the first one where we could tell users that they could put secure files in it. We've seen departments like our enrollment management and finance start to move to Box." As UMBC officials think about where they're going to go, one question is: Is there too much choice? "Giving more direction to people may actually improve collaboration platform usage," Seuss said.

Another challenge in limiting storage, Seuss said, is how to separate an individual's files from a department's files. For example, it raises questions about whether an emeritus faculty member should still have access to department files. "We're going to have to begin to end data retention," he said, "meaning we're going to have to actually delete something, and it is hard to come up with a policy and practice for trying to do that."

Seuss said the reason he is not completely panicked over Google's proposal to limit storage is that at UMBC, about 10 to 15 users are using a high percentage of the storage. "We're just going to have to work with them on a case-by-case basis to figure out what's next," he said. "The real key to doing this was giving ourselves time, and in the Net+ agreement, what we negotiated with Google was that if you sign, you have until July of 2024, so being able to buy ourselves almost three years of time allows us to be planning an orderly migration. We've asked the storage working group that is meeting with Google to get back to us by the end of this calendar year on how the negotiations are going."

Indiana University began a migration away from Box in 2019, in an effort to eliminate duplicative services, according to Justin Zemlyak, director of teaching and learning technologies.

Zemlyak said IU had about 500 terabytes of data in Google before they started the migration process, yet within a year, it had already grown to 1.41 petabytes. "We've seen almost a petabyte increase in our Google storage within a year," he said, adding that they turned on shared drives a little over a year ago, and that's already ballooned to 441 terabytes and is increasing exponentially.

"That is why I appreciate the negotiations that we've done to be able to figure out how we plan this from a contractual standpoint," Zemlyak added. "We haven't figured out yet how to get faculty and staff to understand this. They've lived in a world of unlimited storage for a long time. We used to have unlimited e-mail or lifetime e-mail for students at the university, and that was a really hard model to move away from. Now we're talking about changing storage for our faculty and staff."

Before the Box migration, IU found that more than 80 percent of the data hadn't been touched in two years. "That is over two petabytes of data just sitting there not being touched," Zemlyak stressed. "What could we do institutionally to get our faculty and staff to understand what's appropriate store vs. what's not?"

Communication is always the most important aspect of a change such as this, Zemlyak said. "Migrating from one service to another doesn't solve the problem. We've got to figure out controls that still allow users to use these institutional services, but use them in the right way and not continue to balloon until it's unmanageable."

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