Heads in the cloud

Cloud technology has been around for more than a decade, but is the education sector using it fully and are all cloud providers what they seem?

Now more than ever, students expect to be able to access education at any time, anywhere, and the cloud is a key enabler of this. Whether hosting virtual classrooms, creating back-office efficiencies, or offering secure data storage, cloud technology is being used across the education landscape, bringing with it a number of benefits and opportunities.

Theo Lynn, professor of digital business at DCU Business School, highlights a number of advantages brought about by cloud technology: “By and large, cloud computing will deliver improved reliability through strengthened IT security, disaster recovery and application reliability; and better service through access to continuously updated software, improved IT infrastructure quality and greater absorptive capacity as valuable technical resources are freed up for higher-value work.

“The attributes of cloud computing – shared infrastructure, on-demand, multi-tenancy, utility-based billing and scalability – generate huge benefits to organisations whose core activities are not IT. In the case of education, with the exception of departments that specialise in computing, IT is not a distinctive competence. Resources spent on IT infrastructure is a distraction.”

While Mark Ferrar, CIO at Newcastle University, agrees that cloud offers numerous benefits, he questions what we actually mean by cloud and whether it’s just IT outsourcing by a different name. “The pros and cons of cloud – what’s specific to cloud and what’s just outsourcing – that’s the key piece and that allows us to consider what cloud gives us that’s unique and not just outsourced.

“Do we mean just the hyperscalers – Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Salesforce – or do we mean people that run services on top of the hyperscalers? You get a lot of software vendors today running their software on Amazon and calling it cloud, when I’m not entirely convinced it’s cloud, according to the NIST definitions. Many of the vendors we use now that deliver cloud services fail to deliver a service truly compliant with all those NIST definitions. That’s usually because they don’t have infinitely deep pockets and there’s a limit on how fault-tolerant they can make their product and what they can afford to host it on.”

“You get a lot of software vendors today running their software on Amazon and calling it cloud, when I’m not entirely convinced it’s cloud, according to the NIST definitions” – Mark Ferrar, Newcastle University

While true cloud services are elastic, scalable, fault-tolerant and self-healing, there are potential downsides to be aware of. “Where they almost all fall down is the pricing being variable with the loading,” Ferrar explains. “Many SaaS vendors are lured into running high watermark pricing, where the price goes up to the number of users you’ve got, and then you add some more users and the price goes up again. But then your number of users goes down but the price doesn’t come down because your subscription is set at that high watermark deal. Real cloud varies with load.”

He does believe this is starting to change, however, citing Azure Lab Services’ micro desktops in the cloud which are used by Newcastle University and which bill by the second.

Costing the cloud

When it comes to costs, Guillaume Pierre, leader of the Myriads research team, and professor of computer science at the Université de Rennes, also cautions: “It is important to carefully monitor the usage of cloud resources. Out of personal experience, leasing a relatively large computing infrastructure for a few hours (eg. during a lab) costs only a few dozen euros. On the other hand, if one forgets to return the resources to the cloud provider after the end of the lab, the final costs may end up being much greater.”

Lynn, however, highlights the benefits of “reduced cost and improved cashflow through reduced CAPEX, auto-scaling up and down, faster software deployment, improved clarity of costs and reduced IT support”. Although here, Ferrar cautions: “In education in particular, CAPEX is sometimes easier than OPEX. Increasing the amount of operating revenue depends on taking more tax receipts so moving into OPEX charging is sometimes quite difficult because you lose the ability to sweat the asset.”

Whatever the pros and cons, what is clear is that introducing cloud services for the sake of it is never a good idea.

Ferrar explains: “You’ve got to understand the business need. I’m less worried about cloud than I am about digital. So, I ask why would I take a cloud offering versus why would I run something on premise? In education I see quite a lot of inertia because identifying the drivers isn’t always easy. In a business like, say Tesco, more footfall, more clicks on your website, is measurable. Sometimes the drivers for our use of a service aren’t quite as obvious, so you get this response that ‘It’s still working therefore we don’t need to fix it.’ Some of that masks the triggers for when we should be saying: ‘Actually, we do need one of those’. And then you go through the cycle of saying ‘What do we need, what’s it going to do, what are the benefits and how do we provide that?’ Then cloud becomes just one of the options of providing it.”

“I’m less worried about cloud than I am about digital. So, I ask why would I take a cloud offering versus why would I run something on premise” – Mark Ferrar, Newcastle University

Once the decision has been made that cloud is the best way forward, it’s important to remember that not all cloud service providers are equal. Ferrar adds: “We’ve found with a couple of vendors that, yes it’s a cloud service but what they mean by that is they’ve taken their software and implemented an instance of it for you on Amazon Web Services, but there’s no fault tolerance. If your instance goes down, your instance is down. What people mean by cloud is starting to blur as they realise how to use it to make money.”

To avoid this, he advises looking for cloud-native vendors as they tend to build on top of Platform as a Service. “They don’t just use cloud as Infrastructure as a Service, they build at a higher level,” he expands. “They build-in fault-tolerance, self-healing, scale down and scale up, multi-tenancy, identity-management and a whole bunch of other things.”

Image source: rawpixel/Freepik

The future of cloud

While the profile of cloud technology has grown significantly in the past 12 months with the huge reliance on videoconferencing tools and the move to virtual classrooms, there’s wide agreement that there are plenty more opportunities for the technology.

Lynn says: “Cloud computing and the cloud computing industry, particularly the hyperscale cloud service providers, were able to demonstrate the advantages of cloud computing by provisioning up so many schools, educators and students so quickly and relatively inexpensively. Whether it was virtual classrooms, office applications or even just secure data storage, the pandemic accelerated existing plans to use more cloud or migrated laggards on to the cloud. 

“Cloud is critical when it comes to virtual classrooms. Online education and virtual classrooms still operate on lowest common denominator. The economics of multi-tenancy, distributed architectures, utility billing and abstracting the software in the cloud from the hardware in the student’s hands is central to providing access to virtual classroom technologies at hyperscale whether via laptop, desktop, smartphone and so on.”

The use cases don’t end there, however. “Now that we have embraced at least the concept of hybrid learning – online and virtual – we need to move our horizons to think about integrated learning, eg. mixed reality classrooms,” believes Lynn. “Cloud computing also enables greater use of virtual reality in classrooms and having classes in virtual reality. The world of Ready Player One is not as far off as many think.”

“The world of Ready Player One is not as far off as many think” – Theo Lynn, DCU Business School

Newcastle, too, is keen to embrace the hybrid future, but Ferrar believes more needs to be done to level-up the experience for remote participants. Whereas during COVID it was a comparison between being able to attend classes or not, looking forward, this will not be the case. “If you’re on campus, the question is how can digital services enhance your experience – that might be cloud digital or on-premises but we just want to deliver services seamlessly whenever. Cloud is almost irrelevant; it’s about delivering high-quality teaching and learning.”

Looking to the future, one area of interest that could be run in the cloud is data and analytics. “Think about FMCG or retail,” says Ferrar, “some of the things they do to predict consumer behaviours and understand how their service offering can be more impactful, I think we’ll get the opportunity to do in education and that will probably run in the cloud. The cloud has an advantage because the two things go together; you have the digital analytics engine and the ability to take in all this data and make some kind of sense of it, but then to turn that off and not pay for it. And that’s going to be the key piece: having the analytics capabilities with digital native capabilities added to some of the things we have in the cloud and then only paying for them when we use them.”

It seems then that many institutions are still in the early stages of their cloud journey. While virtual classrooms and videoconferencing have taken the headlines in recent times, its true potential goes way beyond this, offering the opportunity for enhanced teaching and learning experiences, whether through hybrid learning, improved analytics or even XR in the classroom, all while delivering flexibility, scalability and, crucially, reliability.

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