Higher Ed's Cloud Computing Forecast: Stormy

Cloud services may not be the right fit for your institution. Here's why.

David Crain, Contributor

September 13, 2013

5 Min Read

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.

[ How do you get more robust online services? Read 7 Habits Of Successful DevOps. ]

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:

1. Cost

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.

2. Reliability

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.

3. Security

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.

4. Bandwidth

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:

Don't ...

-- 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.

Do ...

-- 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."

About the Author(s)

David Crain


R. David Crain is Assistant Provost & Chief Information Officer for Southern Illinois University (SIU). David has been in this position since April 1st, 2012. As Chief Information Officer at SIU, David is responsible for all aspects of Information Technology.Previous to his employment at SIU, David was an Assistant Vice President at the University of Missouri where he was responsible for the technology infrastructure including data networks, data centers, servers, storage, virtualization, cable television, telephony, Enterprise Architecture, Disaster Recovery and more.Prior to that, David was the Chief Information Officer for the Missouri House of Representatives. In that position he was responsible for directing all technology efforts as well as budgeting and strategic planning in the technology area. He is also certified by the state of Missouri in project management. He has served on the Missouri Enterprise Architecture Committee and the Missouri Information Technology Advisory Board, along with the MO Statewide Network Consortium. Additionally, David was chairman of the following committees; the State of Missouri's Customer Relationship Management Committee, the Missouri Information Technology Mentoring Committee, and the University of Missouri Disaster Recover Committee. He is currently a member of the Illinois Partnership to Advance Technology in Higher Education. David holds a Master's of Science degree in Information Systems and a Bachelor's of Science degree in Communications and Political Science. David's career in Information Technology management began in 1995.

Never Miss a Beat: Get a snapshot of the issues affecting the IT industry straight to your inbox.

You May Also Like

More Insights