Cloud technology: the advantages and disadvantages for universities

Jeremy Sharp looks at the perks and pitfalls for universities using cloud-based services

July 28, 2015

“Cloud technology and services create some challenges, but certainly present great opportunities in education.”

So said John Cartwright, chairman of the Universities and Colleges Information Systems Association – or Ucisa ­– at the Jisc technology forum earlier this month.

Use of “the cloud” has certainly taken off since it was first brought to the attention of the world in 2006 by Google’s former CEO, Eric Schmidt, who introduced the term at an industry conference.

The basic idea of cloud computing is combining computing resources – be that networks, servers, storage or applications – in a shared pool, with “tenants”, such as universities, renting what they need without having to go to the provider every time their requirements change. These pools may be shared within a single organisation (private cloud) or available to everyone on the internet (public cloud).

A survey of IT and library leads in UK education about their usage of cloud technology, carried out by Jisc, found that collaboration and sharing opportunities offered by the cloud were a key benefit and driver for adoption.

Collaboration saves both time and money, and by sharing data, resources and tasks, organisations are able to learn from each other, supporting innovation and quality.

A good example of this is the popularity of email cloud based systems. Some 76 per cent of universities are currently using cloud based systems for student e-mail. I believe this is because they are not only more flexible for a normal user accessing their account from a range of devices and locations, but they are also a more cost effective solution for the organisation.

So there are some clear benefits, but is everyone approaching cloud in the same way? Some 76 per cent of HE providers are using cloud for business applications, such as payroll processing and management software. Another popular area of usage is in supporting research outputs, with 53 per cent of higher education providers using private cloud and 34 per cent using public cloud. But not everyone is signing up to the same package.

It’s only natural that these services are being deployed depending on need – whether that’s better integration between the cloud and other software products, or because they offer flexibility to scale up or down as requirements change.

So what are the downfalls, I hear you ask? There are certainly still worries about cloud technologies. Some 68 per cent said security was their main challenge when trying to use cloud technologies and 65 per cent flagged legal concerns as their main concern.

Cloud can offer savings, but it can also work out more expensive if you’re using it for the wrong purpose. For example if you need capacity only during specific points of the year, such as clearing, then renting from a cloud may be cheaper than buying as you’re not having to pay for the technology when it’s not being used.

At the other end of the scale, if you require anything other than the standard service on offer this is likely to attract an additional charge. So cloud may be cheaper for standard or intermittently-used services, while in-house can be more cost effective for specialised operations.

Regarding security, concerns originally arose from public clouds that allowed different users to use the same equipment. Fortunately, keeping customers’ information separate is vital to modern cloud providers’ reputations and their technologies and processes are designed to do it well. Indeed, clouds can have significant security benefits.

Whether cloud or in-house better delivers your security requirements depends largely on the kinds of attack you need to defend against. If you are most concerned about burglars or hackers then a cloud will give you state-of-the-art protection. If you need to know precisely what security measures are being taken, or only need to access information from specific physical locations, then in-house can provide that control.

Jeremy Sharp is director of strategic technologies at Jisc, the national charity that provides digital solutions for UK higher education.

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