One of the definitions of the world "cloud" in Merriam-Webster's dictionary is "something that obscures or blemishes."
This definition often seems fitting for today's computing cloud. I have seen a number of universities move services to the cloud only to reverse course and move them back to campus due to "blemishes" in security, reliability, service, cost, integration issues or compliance concerns. In fact, at Southern Illinois University (SIU) we are currently moving faculty and staff email back to campus. And it isn't just higher education. A Gartner analyst recently predicted that by 2014, 30% of enterprises using software as a service will move back to on-premises systems.
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Personally, I have been evaluating cloud services for higher education for the last few years and have rarely found them a fit for my organization, despite the fact that every year cloud computing is a top IT issue for higher education. It was rated the #3 issue in 2013 in a recent Educause report. The factors that make cloud services less attractive to our industry include:
Despite the rhetoric, cloud services are often far more expensive than hosting an on-premises system. I believe that this is especially true for public higher education due to the fact that we receive tremendous discounting on most technology and traditionally pay much lower salaries than the private sector. This leads to a very low total cost of ownership (TCO) for our self-hosted services.
At SIU, we outsourced our learning management system at a much higher cost than the previous on-campus system. One of the reasons that we paid this additional cost was because we expected higher availability from the cloud-based system. Unfortunately, we have experienced exactly the opposite. After two years on the new system, our downtime has been consistently and significantly higher than we experienced with the on-premises solution. There have been times that the system has been down for an entire weekend. Additionally, I have other reliability concerns with the outsourcing experience:
-- By outsourcing systems we lose the day-to-day control. When we do have an outage (or other issue) we are solely reliant on the vendor. With an on-premises system, we would commit all necessary resources to fix a problem expediently. With a cloud system, we are helpless.
-- By outsourcing to the cloud, we create multiple additional points of failure. We are still reliant on our own infrastructure, but we are also reliant on the infrastructure of the vendor, their Internet service provider, our Internet service provider and all points in between.
Unfortunately, our experience with lack of reliability is not unique. Even the well-known public cloud providers have suffered significant outages over the past couple of years.
As a major research university, we have a number of legal obligations concerning the protection and preservation of our data. Areas of compliance include FERPA, HIPAA, PCI, FOIA, litigation holds, electronic discovery and more. We recently have seen a number of cloud providers that have severe security breaches (Amazon, Microsoft, Apple, Google, Sony, just to name a few). Their very size makes them a huge target.
Another security concern is that most cloud providers have data centers across the globe, which are subject to the jurisdiction of local governments. The previous university I worked for decided against outsourcing student email to Google for this very reason.
Being located in Southern Illinois has a number of advantages (beautiful scenery, lots of wineries and southern hospitality), but Internet bandwidth isn't one of them. We have a very limited amount of fiber infrastructure in our area, which results in both a limited amount of available bandwidth and a much higher cost for that bandwidth. By moving applications to the cloud we consume additional bandwidth at a very real, significant and measurable cost that impacts the TCO.
I'm certainly not saying that universities shouldn't consider moving applications to the cloud. In fact, SIU has very successfully implemented a handful of cloud services and applications. However, I do offer the following unsolicited advice to my colleagues in higher education:
-- Move to the cloud simply because it is easier to obtain budget for recurring expenses than it is for a capital expense and permanent staff positions. Although this might need to be done out of necessity (I'm guilty of it), it can lead to an overall increased cost to the university.
-- Move to the cloud simply for the expediency of shorter project timelines. This is tempting but can have a long-term negative impact on your university.
-- Move to the cloud without an ironclad service level agreement guaranteeing uptime with penalties for downtime.
-- Commit to long-term contracts for cloud services.
-- Investigate private cloud and community cloud offerings (such as Internet 2's Net+ services).
-- Evaluate all of your options, using a method that considers TCO and return on investment along with institutional risks and business continuity.
-- Investigate costs and complexities of integrating the cloud service into your existing environment.
Perhaps if we are deliberate and judicious in our use of the computing cloud we can avoid seeing it fit yet another cloud definition from Merriam-Webster: "Something that has a dark, lowering, or threatening aspect."