NET+: Finding The Sun Through All the Clouds

Jack Suess, VP-IT & CIO, University of Maryland, Baltimore County
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Jack Suess, VP-IT & CIO, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

Jack Suess, VP-IT & CIO, University of Maryland, Baltimore County

The Campus Computing Project and the EDUCAUSE IT Issues survey both indicate that higher education is cautious in moving to the cloud. Higher education takes a long-term view—being early to adopt technology represents many risks and unclear benefits for CIOs. Though the slow adoption of change strategy has worked successfully over a century of dramatic growth in higher education, it may prove to be a mistake for universities wishing to prosper in the future.

Dominating the Shanghai Jiao Tong University rankings of the top 500 world universities with 146 institutions, the United States remains the world leader when it comes to prestigious higher education institutions. Under the covers, among advanced countries, according to OECD, we are 11th in the world for percentage of students (aged 25-34) completing college—two decades ago, we were number one. Over that period, other countries have dramatically increased college completion rate while ours has grown very slowly, we are now  next to last with dropout rates near 48 percent—while the most recent report by the OECD highlighted that US  higher education is spending the most per student,   $26,021.  Increasingly higher education  looks like health care—for those that can get into elite universities and graduate, it offers the best education possible, but comparatively, we are overspending and under-performing.

Ranked among the top 500 worldwide, my institution, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County (UMBC), we recognize that we must redouble our efforts to improve student success across a diverse student body, innovate in the classroom, sustain and nurture research, all while holding down costs. Effective and agile leveraging of technology—testing new approaches and using data to learn if they are working—are key to success and for the past five years we have been recognized by U.S. News as the #1 “Up and Coming” university that is doing the most to innovate and rethink higher education.

UMBC has been an early adopter and proponent for the efforts of Internet2 to launch its NET+ initiative. The goal of the initiative is to organize a community-led program that allows universities to work together to identify and tailor cloud services to the needs of higher education. In developing a program, the community identified the barriers to the adoption of cloud computing in higher education and found the following barriers in this order:

● IT security concerns—the lack of transparency into how security is handled presents a significant barrier to adoption;

● Legal contracts—developing adequate protections for data, meeting federal and state regulations, and preventing vendor lock-in;

● Identity management & provisioning—establishing a standard approach for cloud services to adopt for authentication and provisioning;

● Rapidly evolving services—lack of transparency into development roadmaps presents both strategic and operational risks;

● Procurement—IT procurement regulations can make it difficult to purchase cloud services; and

● Pricing—developing business and pricing models that encourage broad adoption is essential.

Through the efforts of many institutions working with Internet2 we have made tremendous progress on all of these barriers.  Some of the tangible benefits that come out of the process are listed below.

In the case of IT security concerns, through a process organized by Internet2 NET+, university CIOs and CISOs worked closely with the Cloud Security Alliance on development of a version of the Cloud Control Matrix (CCM) that adds controls designed to cover FERPA protected student data and provides transparency into cloud security practices.

All cloud providers going through the program are required to using the NET+ CCM.In the case of legal contracts, a special concern of universities was building in language that positions a university to be able to leave a service and have adequate time to extract its data. In addition, we have built in breach notification and indemnity language that previously was impossible to get cloud providers to agree to! These NET+ contracts are now viewed by legal as much fairer to universities that when we did this on our own.

In the case of Identity Management, we now require all NET+ vendors  to join the InCommon federation, which utilizes the identity management tools developed in higher education and used in higher education in 30 countries. In the U.S. alone, there are more than 188 companies supporting the InCommon federation service for their cloud products.

Participating in InCommon can lessen integration time for new services in most cases to a few hours of staff time. It is quite telling that the top three U.S. learning management  providers are all providing services through NET+ and have committed to utilizing the InCommon federation.

All Internet2 NET+ service providers commit to a continuing engagement with the community through a service advisory board that works closely with the service provider to review and have input on the service roadmap, increasing visibility into the evolution of services and reducing business risk and an opportunity to update and address future contract issues.

As part of the NET+ program, we have worked with the community of procurement professionals and developed special webinars and training materials that help describe the NET+ process and more importantly, guidance on how to write specifications for the procurement of cloud services. These webinars are available to any university thinking about cloud services.

“UMBC recognizes that we must redouble our efforts to improve student success across a diverse student body, innovate in the classroom, sustain and nurture research, while holding down costs”

Through NET+ we are working to leverage the buying power of higher education with cloud vendors at community scale and ensuring that contracts don’t have hidden escalators that cause costs to grow rapidly, if your enrollment grows. For mid-sized institutions such as mine (12000 FTE) we are able to get much better pricing through NET+ than we would negotiate on our own.

The cornerstone of the Internet2 NET+ initiative is the community working on its own behalf—acting through representative campuses. As a group, the CIOs of Internet2 member institutions understand their role in working to bring value to the entire community—and give a unique significance to the characterization of Internet2 NET+ services as a “brokered community cloud.”

Today, UMBC is using the InCommon service for at least a dozen Software-as-a-Service applications supporting our student success initiatives in residential life, career services, or enrollment management. In addition, we have purchased NET+ offerings to support video conferencing, second factor deployment, web-based file services, VOIP phone services, and our we are now contracting to move to a cloud-based Learning Management System and cloud-based security logging and event management system.  Collectively, these services are allowing us to innovate faster and use technology to advance our respective missions.

Through these efforts, UMBC is using NET+ services to improve student outcomes, increase efficiency, and advance research. What in the past would often take more than a year can now be done in weeks—and when it involves NET+ this often ends up saving us money and reducing our costs!

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