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The Four Obstacles to Cloud Adoption for Higher Education Institutions – And How to Overcome Them

Austin Fuller

8 min read

Last updated on November 17th, 2023 at 9:42am

A Unique Technology Landscape

Higher education and research institutions are a unique blend of departments with their own needs and obstacles to cloud adoption. Academic colleges use the cloud for coursework. Research departments need to run large, demanding workloads to conduct experiments and analyze results. The institution’s administrative needs are similar to a corporate IT department that aims to provide the systems and platforms its constituents need.

Given this diverse technology landscape, universities may feel like they’re trying to provide technology and cloud solutions to three different companies, each with different use cases and requirements. It can be very difficult to please each group at the same time, so it’s no wonder that driving cloud adoption can feel like you’re spinning your wheels and going nowhere fast.

Obstacles to Cloud Adoption

Higher ed has several obvious use cases that would immensely benefit from cloud adoption. From empowering learning, accelerating research, and streamlining administration there is a great need for cloud technologies. Outsiders looking in may be tempted to ask “Why is cloud adoption taking so long?”. The answer is much more nuanced than it appears. There are at least four conditions that are unique to the higher education community that slow or prevent widespread cloud adoption.

Finding an Exact Talent Match Is Fundamentally Difficult

The technology landscape of higher education and research institutions is not an environment that is replicated in other industries or organizations and the cloud itself is a relatively new and continually evolving discipline. This creates a difficult environment for recruiting and developing technical talent that has both practical experience in a university IT team and expertise in a technology that universities have not yet fully adopted. It becomes a chicken or egg type of problem. Do you hire people with expertise in the cloud but lack understanding of the unique higher education technology landscape or do you hire seasoned university technologists that need to develop expertise in the cloud? These conditions lead to slower cloud adoption throughout the higher education community compared to other industries.

Financial Risk Outweighs the Perceived Benefits of Cloud Adoption

Granting someone access to a cloud account, whether it’s a student for educational purposes, researchers running HPC clusters, IT teams hosting needed applications, or any other purpose is opening the door to the largest, and potentially most expensive, data center in the world. This begs the question, “How do the different constituents get the resources they need from the cloud while mitigating the financial risks associated with large-scale cloud use?”

On top of potential overspending, each group typically has different funding sources. Research can be funded by grants, while IT projects can be centrally funded by the university. Tracking and attributing different costs back to their funding sources can be almost impossible – especially across multiple cloud providers.

This risk of runaway spending and invisible costs creates a natural deterrent to cloud adoption for university leadership.

Bridging the Gap in the Traditional It Management Philosophies

Traditional IT management, where IT acts as the centralized arbiter of technology, doesn’t translate well to widespread cloud adoption. If processes can’t deliver cloud capabilities to constituents fast enough, it creates an excellent breeding ground for shadow IT. In the physical data center, it was very difficult for someone to circumvent IT management and provision their own hardware. In the cloud, however, access is only the swipe of a purchasing card away for researchers and faculty.

The most logical step is to create a self-service or consumer-like experience for the cloud. Still, native tools within cloud providers have not been designed with the unique landscape of a higher education institution in mind. In many circumstances, they lack the granularity needed to create a self-service experience that delivers the needed capabilities to end users while mitigating the risk for the university.

As a result, the cloud is typically adopted at a scale much smaller than would otherwise be possible.

Lack of Purpose-Built Tools for Higher Ed’s Technology Landscape

Cloud providers are excellent advocates for cloud adoption and provide a myriad of resources, frameworks, and tools within their respective platforms to assist as many organizations as possible in utilizing the cloud. There is also a large variety of third-party and open-source software tools that have been developed to make managing certain aspects of the cloud easier.

The challenge is that these tools are usually meant to be as industry agnostic as possible and have not been built to support the higher education use case. This leaves gaps between what each department needs and what the infrastructure can provide. IT and platform engineering teams are left to determine what they can deliver with native tools, what they can build and maintain themselves, and what they need to buy.

The complexity and size of architecting a tailored cloud adoption solution from disparate tools and systems are also further constrained by the team headcount and financial resources of each institution, creating another hindrance to widespread cloud adoption.

How Higher Education Can Accelerate Cloud Adoption

Given the difficult conditions and nature of the higher education technology landscape, advocating for cloud adoption can at times feel like you’re swimming upstream. Here are a few ways higher education institutions can bring all of the benefits to the cloud to the different departments while mitigating risk.

Leverage Automation as a Force Multiplier

Automation is essential for cloud adoption. While native tools from the cloud providers can be a boon for initial adoption, as usage grows and new cloud providers are added additional tools – whether they are developed and maintained in-house or from a vendor - become needed to operate and govern the cloud environment effectively. A good example within a higher ed institution would be account provisioning and deprovisioning. Given the nature of higher education, large portions of the user population turn over annually. Having a single platform not only to provision large amounts of accounts but also to deprovision and remove access from these accounts is vital to ensure cloud adoption in any higher ed institution.

Establish Financial Guardrails in Each Cloud Provider to Mitigate Financial Risk

Because the public cloud is a “pay for consumption” model with the potential of near limitless size, placing guardrails to prevent exceeding thresholds of spend is vital to creating predictable and manageable cloud costs. To effectively stop the surprises in cloud spend, guardrails need to do more than simply notify stakeholders that a budget or threshold is being exceeded. They need to freeze or terminate resources to enforce those budgets automatically.

The cloud providers include some functionality to perform financial enforcement natively. For example AWS has AWS Budget Actions to perform actions on EC2 and RDS instances when budgets are exceeded. These native tools are an excellent starting point but as higher ed institutions mature in the cloud or add multiple cloud providers they frequently find that they need more capabilities when it comes to automated financial enforcements. While terminating EC2 instances does help to prevent overspending, some want IAM policies to be changed and access removed when certain financial conditions are met. For more robust capabilities, a platform like Kion that has a multitude of financial management features across AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud is ideal.

With the correct preventative measures in place, higher ed and research institutions can scale in the cloud with the confidence that they won’t exceed established budgets.

Establish the Correct Operating Model Mix

In an environment with varying objectives between teams, like in a higher education institution, it is important for each of the teams to understand their part in achieving those outcomes and objectives as well as the part of other teams in their success.

When adopting the cloud at scale, it is vital to use an operating model to align teams on responsibilities within the cloud and have documented processes for how business value will be delivered.

The Operational Excellence Pillar of the AWS Well-Architected Framework defines five different operating models:

  • Fully Separated Operating Model
  • Separated Application Engineering and Operations (AEO) and Infrastructure Engineering and Operations (IEO) with Centralized Governance
  • Separated AEO and IEO with Centralized Governance and a Service Provider
  • Separated AEO and IEO with Centralized Governance and an Internal Service Provider Consulting Partner
  • Separated AEO and IEO with Decentralized Governance

Organizations need to select the model that best aligns their desired outcomes with what they have the capacity to support. Given the varying needs of the different departments inside a higher education institution, combining operating models can help to deliver the needed business value to each department while mitigating risk and enabling desired levels of governance for the IT and platform engineering team.

A Single Platform Approach to Cloud Adoption

You can layer multiple native and third-party tools to support a unified approach to the governance and management of cloud architecture but this is very time-consuming and cost-ineffective.

Kion resolves this dilemma by providing a single platform for complete visibility and total control of your cloud environment. Kion unifies your AWS, Azure, and Google Cloud environments with a single place to visualize, manage, and govern your cloud estate. Kion becomes the nexus of management and governance for cloud and IT staff while acting as the “front door” to the cloud for your institution’s faculty, staff, and students.

Kion has assisted higher education and research institutions in adopting the cloud by creating a framework to scale confidently in the cloud. Institutions with Kion have complete visibility and control of their cloud spend, get native access to the cloud, control access to resources, and satisfy compliance requirements to ensure security and assist in qualifying for new grants and funding.

Request a demo to see how Kion can help enable cloud adoption for higher education and research institutions.

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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