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Defining a Cloud Strategy: A Higher Education Paradigm

By Russell M. Kaurloto, VP and CIO, Clemson University

Russell M. Kaurloto, VP and CIO, Clemson University

“We’re moving to the cloud” or “Cloud First” have become common themes in the higher education IT world that have caused paradigm shifts from traditional IT technology platforms. With the rise in popularity of Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and a whole host of branded software-as-a-service and platform-as-a-service products, technology cloud service platforms have created an “easy button” approach to turning up new application type services­ – but at what cost? 

Ease of adoption and the increasing speed of standing up new services through cloud platforms is not only redefining the workplace, but at the same time setting expectations that new services can be developed and deployed at the turn of dime.The speed at which new applications can be developed and deployed is spurring a plethora of new ideas and innovations by faculty, researchers and students. Student hackathons have encouraged creative and thought design, and new revenue streams never thought possible prior to cloud platform adoption. The advent of cloud has also given rise to a new breed of workforce development talent, some without a degree in computer science andprogramming. 

When cloud is leveraged at the enterprise level all pros and cons must be reviewed, as there are considerable hidden fees and scalable costs by the providers along with security concerns that are not often considered. At Clemson University we are not unique to this concern, but we deliberately took a different approach in establishing our cloud strategy.While we conduct research and testing on multiple cloud platforms, earlier this year we facilitated a workshop with IT leaders from our major functional areas who assumed we were moving major enterprise systems and functions to “traditional”cloud environments. However, rather than moving to a commercial cloud, we architected our own private cloud so that our environment is very similar to what any commercial cloud provider would offer, but at a fraction of the ongoing costs and with full security control.

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We were able to create this model since we already had a considerable investment in our data center infrastructure and could leverage the investment. This may not be the case for everyone, but when we did the full cost analysis it made sense to leverage our investment rather than utilizing a traditional cloud – though this is not to say that we are against traditional cloud adoption.

With any new technology adoption, we view the critical factors as people, process, and technology—specifically in that order. We regularly see the desire for “moving to the cloud” because it’s the trendy or cool thing to do, but most fail to realize (or quantify)the impact it has on your business and support processes. Another critical factor is investing in training for your IT teams to become more agile in supporting cloud services, to adjust to the speed of which services can be delivered and deployed. Staying current and maintaining relevance to changing tech trends is critical— especially in the business enterprise. 

At Clemson we implemented three steps to ensure proper cloud / technology adoption and success in our technology deployment:

1. Engage your technical teams in a brainstorming and whiteboarding exercise. Ask them what they think any current roadblocks may be in the way you deliver services from a technical standpoint, and what the impact would be if you (as CIO) came in next week and announced that the organization was moving all of its enterprise applications to the cloud. This can be extremely helpful—as it was in our case—at revealing invisible barriers that have little to nothing to do with where our computing is done, but rather opportunities for business process improvements we need to make regardless. Document these and ensure they are part of your organization’s continuous improvement plan and make every effort to engage all parts of the organization across the entire stack of service points—infrastructure, applications, networking, customer service, information security, and project management.

2. Do a gap analysis on the strengths and weaknesses of your team. This can be especially helpful when it comes to doing anything differently and will help in the proper alignment of your organizational resources. At a high level, discern precisely what your organization is good at. What are you best positioned to provide that virtually no one else can? With these differentiators in mind, you can focus your team’s time and talent on the things that will add value to the business (or university function) and reveal which opportunities are right to take a fresh look at potentially moving to a cloud platform.

3. Make sure you and your team understand what cloud really means.Clouds are not a panacea for problems with existing systems or processes, as many institutions have discovered. It might indeed benefit your institution to leverage these environments or platforms as a means to deliver services, but the technology is only one part of the equation. Ensuring you have proper alignment of your business processes and your personnel resources to execute are arguably just as important (if not more so) to ensuring that the organization is delivering the right technology solution – again, regardless of where it calls home.

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