Note: This article was contributed by Campus Management Corp.
While the industry has largely embraced the cloud for adjunct systems such as student email services, learning management systems, CRM, and identity services, many institutions remain wary of moving student information systems and ERP solutions to the cloud.
Lingering concerns over security, control, and adaptability continue to keep many of these core systems firmly grounded on premises.
It is equally true, however, that more institutions today are weighing these concerns against the need to transform in response to the changing dynamics of higher education. Where cost savings might have been the primary driver for institutions moving to the cloud a few years ago, today that movement is being driven as much by changes in how institutions need to operate.
In an environment of reduced public funding, changing demographics, and increased accountability, more institutions are reallocating existing resources around innovations that will directly impact student and operational success. Early adopters of cloud-based SIS and ERP solutions see the cloud as a critical platform for rapidly adding or modifying programs, quickly accessing innovations, improving student engagement and services, and gaining strategic insight from their data.
- Chris Lee, Vice Chancellor of Information Technology Services – Arkansas State University – Beebe. Supports 4 campuses – Beebe, Heber Springs, Little Rock Air Force Base, Searcy.
- Casey Green, Founding Director of The Campus Computing Project – Largest Continuing Study of the Role of Information Technology in American Colleges and Universities.
- Rob Curtin, Director, Higher Education Worldwide Public Sector – Microsoft Corp.
- Mark Armstrong, Chief Strategy Officer – Campus Management Corp.
Arkansas State University – Beebe, is one of these early adopters. During the corporate presentation, Chris Lee, Vice Chancellor of Information Technology Services at ASU-Beebe, along with industry experts, provided a real world perspective on moving student information systems to the cloud, the potential risks and tradeoffs, as well as the standards institutions should expect from a provider.
For additional perspective, we’ve also featured supporting comments and insights from other institutions and industry analysts.
Driving Efficiencies and Reducing Costs
The panelists agreed that any evidence of significant cost reductions for institutions moving their core systems into the cloud remains anecdotal.
“In the conversation about the costs of moving ERP and SIS in the cloud, we do not yet have the much needed and well-documented industry analyses or compelling institutional case studies to help campus officials – including but also beyond institutional IT leadership – understand cost issues and potential savings over the long term,” says Casey Green, founding director of The Campus Computing Project.
Nonetheless, in terms of cost, the cloud has helped institutions avoid buying more technology than they need. “In the past, institutions often procured hardware to cover peak usage during registration or enrollment spikes, only to run at less than 20 percent utilization for most of the year,” says Mark Armstrong, Chief Strategy Officer at Campus Management. “You can negotiate with a cloud provider based on your usage patterns and get that elasticity at a much lower cost. It’s a straightforward business problem to resolve.”
The panelists also discussed how moving to the cloud can make resource allocation more predictable. Institutions can be more disciplined about how resources are applied across departments and systems, whether it’s in budgeting, personnel, or technology.
Since moving its SIS to the cloud, Porter and Chester/YTI, an institution with 13 campuses throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, and Pennsylvania has removed expensive multiprotocol label switching circuits, eliminated the renewal expense of hardware and software, reduced redundant staff positions, increased efficiency in reporting and consolidated financials across business units.
The Cloud as a Driver of Student and Business Success
More revealing of the changing dynamics in higher education, though, is the percentage of institutions wanting to leverage more IT resources to drive business results. In the fall 2016 Campus Computing Project survey, 76 percent of the participating CIOs and senior campus IT officers identified leveraging their technology investments to support student engagement and student success as a top institutional IT priority over the next two to three years.
Student success was the main goal for Cleveland Chiropractic College as it moved its student information system into the cloud. “When we looked at where we were applying our budget dollars in IT, it was in hardware maintenance, servers, licensing costs, and thin-net computing,” says Kirk Barnett, the college’s Student Information Services Manager in an interview with University Business. “We decided we would like to utilize those budget dollars in areas that would more directly benefit students.”
Improving Security and Reducing Risk
“Where’s my data?”
“Who has access to it?”
“Who’s in control of it?”
The panelists agreed that the specter of risk continues to loom over cloud-based ERP and SIS solutions in higher education, even with most institutions having embraced the cloud for point solutions such as email and LMS.
Security was also the main concern for Chris Lee, Vice Chancellor of Information Technology Services – Arkansas State University – Beebe. During the panel discussion, Lee recalled the institution’s lengthy process for vetting cloud providers’ security capabilities: “We wanted to make sure the cloud provider had a better security footprint than we had on premises before moving mission critical apps to the cloud.”
Rob Curtin, Director of Higher Education Worldwide Public Sector at Microsoft, observed that institutions can benefit from the tremendous investment that cloud providers make in security expertise and infrastructure.
“What we learn from protecting ourselves goes right back through the machine learning algorithms to protect your cloud instances. That sort of recursive growth around intelligence and protection is absolutely helping improve security for cloud-based systems,” says Curtin.
Obtaining Service Level Agreements
“In most cases, a cloud provider can’t offer service level agreements around an institution’s core applications, so we’re wholly dependent on the application provider to provide those agreements,” says Curtin.
In some cases, however, the application provider is also the cloud provider, in which case service level agreements up to the application layer can be obtained.
At a minimum, your institution’s ownership of the data, as well as how you will get the data back in the event you end the service, should be clearly spelled out in the agreement.
Retaining a Measure of Control
The prospect of losing control over major systems remains a barrier to greater adoption of cloud-based ERP and SIS. Some institutions have moved the supporting infrastructure to the middle cloud (Infrastructure-as-a-Service)—but still manage the applications on premises.
“We see some schools putting their data centers in the cloud, but they are not relinquishing control,” says Microsoft’s Curtin. “For institutions wanting to maintain control over their core systems, this may be the way to go, but you still need all those skillsets on campus.”
Still, institutions can gain a measure of control depending on how the provider delivers product updates. “The expectation for student information systems in the cloud should be that updates come in deactivated,” said Armstrong. “In effect, you turn them on when you’re ready to use them. It is a measure of control even as you depend on the cloud provider to manage your platform. Is it complete control? No. There is a tradeoff. But for giving up some control, you get that continuous innovation, elasticity, and modern architecture.”
In turn, the cloud provider will require much greater higher education expertise and experience. Higher education is its own universe, with each institution having its own dynamics, rhythms, and student needs that should be factored into the underlying architecture. The cloud provider should not only stay on top of federal regulatory and reporting requirements, but make changes and updates based on the institution’s unique demands—with minimal disruption to business operations.
Bringing Your Environment to the Cloud
Many institutions have made significant investments in integrations between their SIS, ERP and complementary third-party solutions. Most responsible cloud vendors today are building integration into the products as they deliver them, including extensive catalogs of Web services, Learning Management Systems integration packs, and even integrations for competitor products.