Cloud Computing Benefits for the Education Industry

Warren D. Nevins, Director of Information Technology, Rutgers University
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Warren D. Nevins, Director of Information Technology, Rutgers University

Many years ago, back when 16-bit computing was cutting edge and video card memory came in kilobytes, not gigabytes, I was a young man who for the first time got his personal coaxial network routing data properly. Making sure the cables were precisely attached to the back of each NIC to experience the 10 Mbit/s speeds; just bumping the cable could interrupt the connection. At the same time feeling amazed and inspired at being able to see and even manipulate the content of a folder on my second Windows 3.11 desktop across the room from where I was sitting.

Fast forward a couple decades, and the world has changed at a remarkable pace from those first attempts at personal network building. Mobile computing has driven new ways to connect, increasing and creating demand for versatile data storage and ready access to that same storage but on-the-go. We now live in a world not connected by 10 Mbit/s coaxial which fails with a bump to the wire, but rather gigabit networks and massive remote data centers globally positioned to provide individuals’ access to simple, app-based storage solutions built atop complex infrastructures. AWS, Google and Microsoft are some of the giants in the field, storing and using our data in ways that many of us embrace as an easier, convenient method to retain and recover information while not always considering the impact these large carriers have with their role involving our privacy and personal security of the information they are now charged with as custodians.

As an IT area lead at Rutgers University, a public research university, change has come slowly but is now accelerating due to the ongoing demands of local resources being insufficient and budgets being stretched to do more. I personally sit on a committee at Rutgers University charged to move our legacy, disparate UNIX email systems to a cloud based solution. In fact, the goal of cloud based email and calendaring was qualified prominently in our President’s vision for a new, 21st-century University. The benefits are abundant and certainly when cost analysis is done on the surface, a tremendous savings can be found which may yield both a return of resources and precious time. The Division in which I work, Continuing Studies, moved to the Google Apps for Education platform when it was initially launched not quite a decade ago; we haven’t looked back since.

​Cloud computing has allowed us to reach a goal unlike anything I could have imagined two decades ago

Our benefits were immediate and direct. Making the transition to a cloud based email solution has allowed our Division to work in a new way. No longer were we tethered to client configurations and moving PST data files between desktops. It allowed us to be ahead of the curve before checking your email on a mobile device became the rule, not the exception. All this being said, universities like mine and indeed companies around the globe are embracing cloud computing in different ways. There is still a reluctance from many of my peers because security and privacy cannot be guaranteed. An outage on Google’s Gmail infrastructure for instance, while rare, can affect hundreds of millions of users, my own users included in that pool. Plus, unlike the traditional infrastructure I personally oversee, I do not have the ability to tap a staff member on the shoulder and ask a question. The simple fact is I have no way to know the server, network, data and storage people that can come into contact with my information; I must for convenience sake put my trust in the hands of those large carriers as having verified the integrity of their staff. More so, I must trust that the information that now resides in places unknown is not affected by local laws, political changes or the competency of staff I have never met.

Systems that typically are themselves not regarded as private or secure are easy fits for cloud computing initiatives. There is an analysis that needs to be done to verify the information, the ease of access, the process to which the convenience is attained in alignment with the risks and rewards clearly understood by all those who have a stake in keeping their information secure and accessible. Moving our email systems to the cloud was a win all around, but perhaps not so much if you have a need to keep your information tightly controlled. After all, knowing the names of everyone who has access to my data center lets me sleep better at night, I but I have to accept the loss of that control when I embrace a cloud solution. With that loss comes convenience and ease, but we must be cautious before we readily accept those rewards too lightly.

Now we are transitioning again here at Rutgers University. As an outcome of our University committee review, we are moving to Office 365 for a unified solution. While I am reluctant to leave Google, I wholly embrace the change that will allow me to easily connect with colleagues and faculty across school and department lines. We will have new ways to use communication tools such as Microsoft Lync and a University calendar that everyone communally knows how to engage and share. All of this being done without the power, computing and cooling commitments that a typical infrastructure of this size would warrant, allowing our local campus computing resources to be used for ideally what they should be used, which is research computing. Creating solutions that we hope, one day will make the world a better place. Cloud computing has allowed us to reach a goal unlike anything I could have imagined two decades ago, while being awestruck at copying a file between two computers through a cable.

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