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Is life better in the cloud? These three universities think so

In the ever-evolving quest to “do more with less,” university IT departments are constantly on the hunt for ways to provide the highest levels of service possible, as cost-effectively as possible. As many universities are finding out, one way to do this is by moving key services to the cloud.

But the process of sending services to the cloud is not without its challenges. We spoke with three universities – the University of Alberta, the University of New Brunswick and Trent University  – for insights on how the move to the cloud has affected IT service delivery on their respective campuses.

A Consolidation Strategy 

One of the most common first forays into cloud services is with e-mail hosting. At the University of Alberta, the two-year process of moving all 82 different e-mail systems (representing some 140,000 accounts) to Google Apps for Education was a significant undertaking.

“We ended up deploying a full-fledged collaboration suite – including calendar, chat, document sharing and more – and it’s been huge for us,” said Trevor Woods, Executive Director of the University of Alberta’s central information technology department.

Woods said the success he’s had moving to the cloud is directly linked to the amount of stakeholder engagement involved at the beginning of the process.

“E-mail is what touches people on the most personal level, so we didn’t recklessly decide to do this. We had a really good privacy impact assessment, legal review and security review processes in place,” Woods said.

“But one of the biggest myths people believe is that e-mail is secure in the first place. We corrected that by telling all of our users that sending an e-mail is like sending a postcard, and that you should not send anything by e-mail that you wouldn’t want on the front page of a newspaper.”

A Hybrid Approach

At the University of New Brunswick, all student e-mail accounts have been moved to the cloud, while all faculty and staff accounts are still hosted internally.

“Faculty members in particular are quite sensitive about current jurisdictional issues. If any data is going to be hosted outside of Canada, the fear is that organizations like the NSA [National Security Agency] in the US are going to monitor information and, often inadvertently, turn up references to individuals or content found in certain accounts,” said Terry Nikkel, Associate Vice President of Information Technology Services at UNB.

“We understand that fear, and we also understand that there are facts with which to fight that fear. For instance, Canada and the US exchange information all the time – there are treaties enabling this and groups like CSIS help facilitate it. But it can be a difficult conversation to have. We simply feel the perceived risks are far worse than the actual risks.”

For Nikkel, today’s cloud services are simply too robust and reliable to pass on.

“Companies like Google and Microsoft have long been offering services we simply can’t compete with. They are able to invest in state-of-the-art infrastructure; their data centres are 24/7, industrial scale, completely backed-up and physically secure; they support everything, and they have millions of users. These systems are more stable than our own internal systems,” Nikkel said.

“Cloud services are a positive development, because they really do free institutions from having to support and maintain the infrastructure that their services and applications live on. Fears around the Patriot Act and so forth will slowly recede, but it will take some time.”

A Personal Touch

Trent University has also moved all of its e-mail accounts to the cloud.

“We’ve explored options around e-mail, contacts, SharePoint for collaboration and OneDrive for file storage and sharing, and we’ll be using them all as part of the Office 365 suite of products,” said Tariq Al-Idrissi, Associate Vice President of Information Technology at Trent. “We did a lot of research, we looked at a number of alternatives and we met with each of our unions to discuss what moving e-mail to the cloud would mean to them – and we had almost no opposition at all. It was all very well received.”

Al-Idrissi said that the stakeholder engagement process gave his team an unprecedented opportunity to engage and interact with all users.

“Over the course of about a year, we had a chance to literally sit down with all of our users,” he said. “You just can’t buy that level of PR. You can send them messages or invite them to open houses, but when you call them and offer to sit down with them for a couple of hours and interact with them, it’s a very important part of the process. That personal contact is very rare.”

Trent currently distributes an annual IT satisfaction survey, and last year’s results showed an 86 per cent satisfaction level among students – 92 per cent of which indicated that e-mail was their most important IT service.

“The Ontario Privacy Commissioner has identified the risks associated with cloud services as a red herring,” Al-Idrissi said. “And even if you do get opposition, it’s usually a very small population – maybe 1-2%. It’s about how you get around that that’s important, and that’s by doing your work ahead of time.”

For Woods, Nikkel and Al-Idrissi, cloud services will become increasingly popular on Canadian campuses as time passes – a trend that, they say, will serve IT departments well.

“The fact that we don’t have to worry about keeping e-mail up, back-ups, snapshotting to restore, upgrades and patches, it’s one less thing for us to worry about,” Wood said, “so that we can stay focused on our university’s mission of teaching and research, and how the IT services we provide can support that mission.”

“It’s not easy to find ways to provide increased functionality without increasing costs – or better yet, at less cost and at the same time continuing to ensure users are comfortable that their data is protected and secure” said Lori MacMullen, Executive Director of CUCCIO. “We’re very happy to see our member institutions having success as pioneers in the adoption of cloud services in higher education.”