Cloud Computing: Joining a cloud community

Publication Date: 
January 27, 2011
Expiration Date: 
January 27, 2014
Shel Waggener, Chief Information Officer
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[Editor's note: This article was first published in EDUCAUSE Quarterly, Vol 33, No. 4, 2010, and is the final piece of a four-article series Shel Waggener wrote for the publication as a guest columnist.]

If you have been following this column throughout 2010, then you know that I advocate preparing your campus IT organization for what I am convinced will be a tsunami of opportunity presented by cloud and above-campus service offerings. Google Apps, Microsoft Live, Amazon EC2, and a host of other commercial solutions represent what will be only the first wave of cloud solutions to reach widespread adoption by many IT organizations. The coming wave won't just be dominated by commercial providers, but will also provide customized solutions built by higher education for higher education.

In May 2010, EDUCAUSE and NACUBO hosted a workshop for business and technology leaders to discuss how to influence the future makeup of cloud services to meet our communities' needs. The session resulted in a white paper that called on the higher education community to explore the development of a formal cloud computing consortium that could serve as both a clearinghouse for solutions and "would operate as a venture philanthropy, finding and evaluating cloud delivery experiments and matching their sponsors with funding sources. [….] Such a broker/facilitator would reduce the barriers to usage and eliminate or reduce the need to negotiate new contract terms each time a service is consumed or invoked" [1]. These recommendations from the report, along with the steady drumbeat of new cloud-based offerings for higher education [2], make clear the importance of higher education embracing a future that not only expects but also depends on community-developed cloud solutions.

Although more must be done to encourage campus-specific cloud computing, you don't have to wait to begin taking advantage of these kinds of services. In addition to any internal organizational preparations you might be undertaking at your own institutions to prepare for using such services, you can adopt one of several solutions already in place. In a number of areas where the scale offered by the cloud is sought to solve platform, infrastructure, and application challenges over the Web, the future is already here. To give you a sense of the options for your institution to join a cloud community as a consumer or even as a provider of shared solutions, let's review a few examples of existing above-campus offerings.

DuraCloud: Infrastructure as a service

DuraSpace, an outgrowth of two independently developed higher education infrastructure and platform tools projects (Fedora and DSpace), offers DuraCloud — an open-source technology platform that sits between higher education institutions and commercial providers. By providing seamless integration across multiple storage providers, including Amazon, EMC (Atmos), and RackSpace, DuraCloud allows institutions to take advantage of the benefits of extreme scale while maintaining a master account to manage all providers, mitigating risks associated with using a single provider (vendor lock-in).

HathiTrust: Digital archive for library materials

HathiTrust Digital Library represents a great example of schools that had previously attempted to solve a problem both by individually recognizing the potential alignment of need and by collaborating to develop the solution. Think about the millions of volumes stored in our institutions' libraries. As those assets increasingly are digitalized, how will we manage the associated storage, access, and preservation challenges? Should each of us develop our own archive system and manage the technology locally to protect our digital assets?

The Google Books Library Project helps address part of that challenge. It scans millions of volumes from our libraries, storing one copy at Google and providing one copy to the hosting institution. This approach works for access, but what about preservation?

Because of the farsighted vision of a few initial investors, including the University of Michigan and the University of Indiana, who put their resources together and developed a solution that is open to all of higher education, you don't have to develop a preservation strategy alone. This solution, called HathiTrust, enables any school to preserve its library's digital assets for a fraction of what it would cost to develop its own local solution. HathiTrust now has nearly 8 million volumes under its stewardship, permanently preserving the scholarly record within the management of, not a commercial firm, but higher education itself.

Kuali Ready: Continuity planning for higher education

Originally developed for use by a single institution, the Kuali Ready planning tool aims to maintain business continuity in the event of emergencies and disasters. This planning tool was subsequently contributed to the Kuali community source effort and enhanced and expanded to support multiple institutions. Unlike other successful community software projects, such as Sakai or uPortal from JASIG, Kuali Ready was developed and offered as a software as a service (SaaS) cloud solution. In SaaS, instead of downloading the software, getting a server, and installing a local implementation, you can simply sign up for an account and be up and running without investing in local systems. Hosted by higher education institutions in both the United States and Canada on behalf of the Kuali Foundation, the application can be configured and locally branded for your institution at a fraction of the cost of building or running software locally. The application already has about 50 campuses installed and will be widely available by the end of December 2010.

InCommon: Federated identity management

Unlike discrete services such as storage with DuraCloud or library archiving with HathiTrust, InCommon provides a middleware cloud service that is an enablement of, or gateway to, other services. Most campuses have an identity management (IdM) system in place to allow for easier authentication and authorization for local applications. However, what happens when you start consuming above-campus services, or you want to offer one of your applications or services to other institutions? You could add accounts for all those individuals into your IdM solution (rather time-consuming and expensive), or you could join InCommon and have the ability to federate your identity with other higher education (and commercial) providers automatically. Even more promising, the InCommon team is working with similar consortia in Europe and beyond to provide shared access to services within higher education on a global basis.

Sharing your project with higher education

These projects are all very different in terms of the functionality they offer; however, they share some attributes that have allowed them to move from a single-institution solution to a national or international service offering. If you are thinking of adding your project to the world of shared higher education solutions, consider the following requirements:

  • Clearly defined solution: Projects that attempt to solve too many problems simultaneously tend not to work at large scale, as the differences in institutional needs reduce the potential breadth of the solution's relevance. Is your project designed to solve a host of problems, or does it do one or two things really well?
  • Differentiation minimization: Every one of our communities believes its problems (and companion solutions) to be unique. Take a hard look at the solution you have designed. Can you segment your local customizations from the general solution space?
  • Scale matters: Think about the cost per unit of your current solution. Would the cost decline if you were able to collaborate with a few institutions on the same solution? What about 100 institutions?
  • Leadership: Are you prepared to trade short-term effort for long-term gains? To succeed, you will need a vision of what the service can accomplish in the future; the ability to partner with peers and build a consortium; and a passion for bringing a tailored solution to higher education.

Opportunities and risks in the cloud

Throughout 2010, as each new EDUCAUSE Quarterly was published, I received emails from colleagues and technology professionals around the country reflecting what appears to be a polarized community on the use of cloud services. The arguments for and against seem familiar, each echoing similar statements about either the wildly optimistic benefits or the potential horrors that come with each new technology transition. When transitioning from the mainframe and terminals to client-server and desktop machines, there were significant advantages as well as considerable risks. Transition to web applications? More gains and more risks. Migration from desktop and laptops to mobile devices as the primary personal computing platform? That, too, will bring both benefits and challenges.

The passion regarding the transition to cloud computing is no less vociferous, with impassioned comments supporting the ease of use and collaboration opportunities on one side, and equally fervent concerns about data leakage, loss of privacy, and vendor lock-in on the other. The common thread in all of this debate is that in all changes, there exist both opportunity and risk. When presented with possible change, the optimists look to the best possible future and say "look what it might be," while the risk-averse focus on the known, specific concerns about control over systems and data. As has proven to be the case before, and will again throughout this transition, the reality lies somewhere in the middle. Above-campus shared services will bring a scale to solutions that simply has not been possible at a departmental, school, college, or university level. No matter the size of your institution, you are not large enough to negotiate as effectively for services as a coalition of institutions sharing investment and service delivery can.

The above-campus solutions discussed here demonstrate a sample of what is already under way in higher education, but really represent just the tip of the iceberg coming our way. I hope I have provided insight into how you and your institution can prepare for a future of cloud computing and shared solutions within higher education. I urge you to consider each aspect of your campus's technology portfolio and ask yourself these questions: Can I join with others to solve this common problem? Will doing so provide better services and greater choice to my community? Empowering your campus constituents to make choices and use services offered beyond local solutions isn't only beneficial, it's inevitable.

Acknowledgments

Thanks to all who have provided guidance to this series this year and to the great editors at Berkeley, as well as to EDUCAUSE and ECAR for their assistance.

Notes

1. Karla Hignite, Richard R. Katz, and Ronald Yanosky, "Shaping the Higher Education Cloud," an EDUCAUSE and NACUBO white paper, May 2010, p. 22.

2. Dennis P. Wall, Parul Kudtarkar, Vincent A. Fusaro, Rimma Pivovarov, Prasad Patil, and Peter J. Tonellato, "Cloud Computing for Comparative Genomics," BMC Bioinformatics, vol. 11 (May 18, 2010), p. 259; and National Science Foundation, "Microsoft and NSF Enable Research in the Cloud," press release 10-023, February 4, 2010.

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