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How the Public Cloud Has Transformed University IT

Austin Fuller

7 min read

Last updated on March 1st, 2023 at 1:40pm

Some university IT leaders like to describe their work as “herding cats” due to the collection of decentralized constituents with very different priorities and needs:

  • Research departments would like high-power computing resources, whether hosted on-premise or in the cloud.

  • Each college under the university has different objectives and may have its own budgets and discretion to spend them on technology, creating a collection of disparate systems.

  • Administration has its own goals and perspective compared to the decentralized colleges.

Furthermore, these academic units often have the authority to act autonomously of the IT department.

Finally, compared to many private sector organizations, many universities are decades older – some are hundreds of years old! – with inherited IT decisions and architecture. This means central IT has to maintain the legacy systems and preferences of academic, research, and administrative stakeholders while also looking for ways to enable & enhance IT capabilities for the future.

Higher Education IT Continues to Move Forward with Cloud Adoption – But There Are Challenges

Despite the complexity, universities are continuing to adopt the public cloud, with cloud computing in higher education forecasted to grow 25.4% by 2027.

However, adopting the cloud and achieving its promise is challenging for many IT leaders and their team members. They must develop cloud adoption strategies that accommodate:

  • Hybrid cloud environments consisting of legacy on-premise services and new public cloud workloads.

  • Differing departmental and organizational needs requiring the support of multiple cloud services and IT solutions.

  • Limited resources coupled with a demand for an evolving vast technical skill set, creating a talent shortfall on many teams.

Matthew Rich from Northwestern University wrote on his blog about the distinct differences in higher education and their impact on cloud adoption:

“Multi-cloud is simply a fact of life at [higher ed] institutions like this, and those of us in cloud governance must put in the work to make the workloads in each cloud environment as safe, secure, and cost-effective as possible.“

Considering Matthew’s observation, it’s clear that central IT has a vital and evolving role in ensuring the impact of the cloud on the university. We’ll look at some ways central IT is fundamentally changing, how the cloud is driving this change, and how you can capitalize on it to bring about meaningful outcomes across your institution.

From Maintainers to Innovators

Traditionally, higher ed IT’s primary directive was the maintenance and operations of the infrastructure, but that directive is changing.

The public cloud has created a self-service world of infrastructure and outsourced all the maintenance and operations to the public cloud providers. This drives IT to focus more on operational efficiencies and innovation rather than provisioning and maintaining hardware and self-hosted systems.

This represents a massive opportunity.

Where before, other departments and colleges may have been averse to involving central IT in their decisions or evaluations, IT now has an opportunity to become the trusted advisor and enabler for technology transformation across the university. IT can be the exemplar in how they have instituted their CI/CD pipelines and hold workshops to share and train other departments. They can also help inform faculty of new services from cloud providers that could be a good fit for their projects or classes.

The specifics will vary depending on the institution, but central IT is now positioning itself as the cloud experts and enablers of institutional innovation instead of as gatekeepers or maintenance staff.

Teaching Your Way to the Cloud

A university is fragmented by nature. Teaching, training, and sharing knowledge across the different colleges and organizations is essential to driving meaningful change and responsible cloud adoption. At our panel discussion at EDUCAUSE 2022, Andrew Marcontell, the Executive Director of Solutions Engineering at Texas A&M University, related an experience on what he observed to how to adopt the cloud the right way by other groups and departments. He said:

“I saw a presentation from another cloud leader about training [the university] into the cloud, where [IT] would bring in people from other parts of the institution on how [central IT] was doing their infrastructure-as-code and how their other cloud practices were changing the way their university operates in the cloud. If I were to do it over again, that’s what I would change. I would start with the outreach program first and then demonstrate through specific outcomes. That’s how you get buy-in.”

It might seem counterintuitive to start with training, which usually follows after a new process or initiative has been completed. Still, because the cloud diverges from traditional IT management and is largely self-service, IT needs to evolve how they earn the trust and involvement from other departments.

Shaping the Higher Ed Cloud Estate

Higher education IT will continue to be one of the most challenging landscapes to operate within. Multi-cloud is inherently the most difficult approach to cloud adoption and some experts, like Corey Quinn, have cautioned against the approach. However, because of the unique organizational structure and varied needs of constituents throughout the university, multi-cloud is the only way to meet everyone’s needs. In this way, universities are the leaders and pioneers of the proper and correct ways to implement a multi-cloud strategy at a meaningful scale.

University IT has the unique opportunity to be the Amerigo Vespucci of the new multi-cloud world, but it won’t be without its challenges. IT teams must span knowledge and skill gaps while adding additional cloud providers. They will face frustrations in trying to bridge gaps and connect services that probably were not intended to be connected. All this while working with a headcount and budget that could grow a bit larger. Tackling these challenges is not for the faint of heart.

Making the Best of Multi-Cloud

While multi-cloud can be the source of much dismay for a central IT team, it likely isn’t going away any time soon. Matthew Rich elaborates:

If you’re in central IT and need to keep things running smoothly for your colleagues and customers in the distributed schools and departments, you have no choice but to make the best of multi-cloud."

He recommends hard, preventative guardrails to mitigate risky and/or expensive operations, regular check-ins with cloud account owners, and simple, clearly defined standards that are constantly communicated.

Instituting a sound cloud governance framework with guardrails to prevent errant behavior, automation to enable scale and reduce overhead, and a security-first approach to mitigate risk are vital for succeeding in a multi-cloud world. At Kion, we see some of these recommendations as key ingredients to what we call “cloud enablement”. Cloud enablement shifts people from spending their time on the grunt work of managing and governing their cloud to performing meaningful work that transforms the organization.

The Need for a Single Platform to Enable the Higher Ed Cloud

Because many institutions must have some degree of multi-cloud, they face unique challenges to mitigating risk and ensuring smooth operation. Some of these include:

  • Allocating both centralized and decentralized funding, and enforcing static spend thresholds aligned to grants and projects

  • Ensuring flexible mechanisms are in place to easily add and remove users to respond to frequent turnover

  • Managing data retention and classification risk, as well as delegating access control to information

  • Meeting extensive and varied compliance requirements

These needs are typically addressed by the rules and policies of cloud governance and the automation and ongoing management of cloud operations. The Kion sweet spot is how we address these challenges in a single cloud enablement platform for security, repeatability, and budget alignment.

A Solutions Engineer from a Top 100 University said “We tried to use native tools but found the organizational structure to be lacking. Kion aligned our organizational structure with our business structure, provided better security and compliance control, and applied budgets all in one place.”

Central IT can benefit immensely from a single-platform cloud management and governance approach. With Kion, central IT can give everyone a front door to exactly what they need from the cloud while making sure they operate safely and securely. If you would like to see a demo of Kion and how we help enable central IT teams to transform their institutions, request one here.

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About the Author

Austin Fuller

Austin has nearly a decade of experience in enterprise software and cybersecurity and is an AWS-certified cloud practitioner.

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