The Cloud Continuum

By Cynthia Herrera Lindstrom, CIO, University of Illinois at Chicago

Cynthia Herrera Lindstrom, CIO, University of Illinois at Chicago

The advent of the “cloud” has come as part of an evolution in IT services. The cloud, as it is used today, refers to those services provided on the Internet, seemingly in a place unknown, by people unseen. But, in a way, there has always been a cloud. At the start, the mainframe played a similar role, it just happened to be on campus rather than far away. The Internet took the mainframe, expanded it beyond the confines of a building, and turned it into the cloud.

In the beginning, the central IT department on campus was the be-all, end-all. We acted as developer, host, supporter, and monitor–and we pretty much did it all on our own with a large degree of control over the services and how they were provided. Over time, things have changed into what I would like to call the cloud continuum: a shift in service providers, service levels, expectations, and experiences.

In the early days of the cloud, personal email accounts from independent providers started popping up. Hotmail, Yahoo, and later Gmail broke off from the model that had been set by Internet Service Providers (ISPs). These companies changed the landscape–creating economies of scale that allowed them to offer better services than our central IT could, given the resources we had. And those email accounts cost nothing! With the introduction of free email not tied to an ISP, our users had choices on services that were not tied to their work or school account. Along with that, support also changed, users no longer needed us the way they did in the past. Rather than relying on central IT, support forums appeared online and users were able to count on each other for help. This new support model proved to be quite effective in terms of speed and, in general, many of the answers were good and helpful.

The transformation of email services started to change customer expectations. They became used to the extra features offered by these massive email providers and expected similar levels of service from our central IT department. As time went on, it became clear that we could not compete with the amount of storage, features, support, and constant innovation that giants like Google could provide.

Eventually, central IT bought into the trend. We were no longer an email service provider–we jumped on the “cloud continuum” and became a broker of services. Central IT consumed the cloud and made it available to users. All of the support and development that went into maintaining old email systems, for example, became obsolete, and some of those freed-up resources shifted to improving other services or offering new ones. Today, that continuum continues to shift. We now depend not only on cloud email services, but also storage, collaboration, and others.

And IT needs in Higher Ed continue to increase and become more complex, and security concerns are on the rise. We have fewer and fewer resources, particularly in staffing levels, and the shift to the cloud has allowed us to provide services that we would not have been able to otherwise. Particularly as it relates to security and compliance, we have taken advantage of the expertise and economies of scale that these vendors bring to the table. While not without risks, established and well-known companies have the resources and know-how to do security and compliance well, as they have a business and reputation to maintain. We can also tap into cloud providers to help with timely security updates and upgrades. We may lose the ability to customize products as much as we would have in the pre-cloud days, but the benefits outweigh what could be viewed as a drawback.

Not only have service providers and levels changed, but the user’s expectations have sky-rocketed. In an age when our connected and always-on students (CAOS) expect to be able to connect to anything, anywhere, at any time, the cloud gives them the ability to access our services at will. They can be at home or on the bus, on a laptop or a mobile phone, and have the same experience as they would on campus. Long gone are the days of installing device drivers and purchasing expensive software. The ease and affordability of cloud services remove barriers to student learning and democratize access to resources.

The cloud also helps us to better maintain our file “sanity.” We have files available and synched throughout a multitude of devices–we no longer have to remember to take a file with us to work on it at home. We are almost out of the era of lost USB sticks or a fried hard drive deleting a whole dissertation. Everything can be backed up without our having to think about it. And we do not even need to be connected to the Internet to be productive.

Expectations have also risen in the area of collaboration. We can share files seamlessly: faculty can more easily collaborate with colleagues on other universities and students can create and work together on group projects without leaving home. Shared editing capabilities mean that we no longer have to deal with large file attachments or multiple versions of the same document.

The cloud is a trend that will continue into the future, with central IT departments acting as service integrators, developing interfaces and data access, with a shifting support role. In the end, our students, faculty, and staff benefit from services that would be challenging for us to manage on campus, with all the bells and whistles they have become accustomed to in their personal lives. This cloud continuum that we are on gives us the ability to do more with less–less time, less money, and fewer IT staff–than ever before.