Friday, February 1, 2008

Will Campus Computing Move Into the Cloud?

A century and a half ago when manufacturers needed power for their machinery, they generated their own. To run lathes, saws, and other power tools manufacturers set up their own waterwheels, steam engines, or in the early years of electrification, their own generators. While independently produced power grew through most of the nineteenth century, with the spread of a reliable and ubiquitous electric grid in the early twentieth century business relinquished this activity to utility companies. Rather than generating their own power, manufacturers plugged into the electric grid and paid utility companies to provide power for them.

According to Nicholas Carr in The Big Switch (Norton, 2008), a similar change is happening today in the development of so-called “cloud” computing. For the past thirty years companies and individual users have used their own software and hardware to process information. There were no alternatives because the communication networks that allow one computer to talk to other computers were not fast enough to facilitate computing at a distance. But with growing bandwidths, and more ubiquitous grids, hosting services in “the cloud” in remote locations far removed from end users has become a viable option. For example, instead of buying and running my own copy of Microsoft Word I can author and store my documents in Google Docs and rely on Google’s server farms scattered all over the world to take care of this for me. Likewise, business users who used to have to buy locally hosted customer relationship management software (CRM) can browse their way to companies like Salesforce and use their vastly discounted CRM services over the Web.

In Carr’s view, Google Docs and Salesforce are only the beginning of a big switch. Much more is to come and it will transform the way we manage information technology as radically as electrification transformed the production and consumption of power. When everyone is hosting their own hardware and duplicating infrastructure that another company has just down the road inefficiencies result. While vendors are happy to sell the same hardware to multiple customers, cloud computing promises to redress this duplication. With cloud computing, these inefficiencies are so radically diminished that the economic imperatives to switch are hard to resist– even if the transformation has not happened everywhere yet.

Carr is an engaging scholar but in spite of this he is forwarding a premise that is bound to raise eyebrows. Is the big switch really happening? Will local I.T. infrastructures disappear? Will everything move into the cloud? Carr is careful to say that if the switch is happening, cloud computing will take many years to mature and that it faces many challenges. As more and more customers are served by centrally hosted services, cloud providers will have to figure out how to centralize and consolidate services while catering to the diverse needs that make up a large customer base. Cloud computing providers will also have to address security concerns which tend to be more acute when company data is moved off site. But if these seem like significant challenges, they pale in comparison to the task of convincing companies to retire and repurpose all of the local infrastructure into which they’ve poured so much money. Will CIOs really repurpose or write off all these investments? And on a more human level will they be able to convince their employees to leave aside technologies that they’ve spent years becoming familiar with?

Carr thinks that the imperatives of the market will drive a great many technologies into the cloud in spite of these challenges. But if Carr helps illuminate some aspects of technology strategy, managers will still be faced with the hard task of figuring out how big the switch is, how quickly they’ll need to respond to it, and what they’ll do with local I.T. once the switch is made.

And if universities are a little less subject to market vicissitudes, if the switch really is occurring, these questions will also face those of us in academe. Here at Weber State I see evidence of it already taking place. For example, we’ve poured millions (yes millions) of dollars into a locally hosted learning management system. But the Utah Educational Network has built their own state-wide system and is offering to provide these services to us at discount. And companies like eCollege are providing large scale fully hosted solutions that are a viable substitute to our locally hosted solution as well. Will we move toward this learning management system solution? Or will we continue to host locally? And what will happen to all the I.T. jobs on campus if we do move learning management into the cloud?

I’'ll make the following prognostications based on Carr's work.

First, even if we take advantage of the cloud’s efficiencies and migrate, there will still be a place for local I.T: we will still want to keep local help desks and provide faculty and students with the training which will allow them to leverage cloud computing to its best pedagogical advantage. (cf. Patrick Masson on the Educause CIO listserv)

Second, information technicians will continue to work in the university – they’ll just be repurposed to other projects which currently sit on the back burner.

Third, in spite of all the efficiencies of cloud computing, it’s possible that we won’t choose to move our Learning Management System (LMS) into the clouds after all. An LMS is a technology that is servicing a core mission of the university (e.g. teaching and learning). If we want to maintain full control of this mission and the way technology shapes this mission, we are likely to want to customize our LMS in ways that can't be met by the cookie-cutter options available in the cloud.

Fourth, I won’t unequivocally embrace the idea that the big switch is here. But having now read Carr (rather than 'of Carr') I’m impressed, if nothing else, by his erudition. In an early passage, Carr takes Lewis Mumford to task for asserting that we can control technology if we can summon the courage to do so. In response to this sentiment Carr replies that Mumford was “mistaken”:

“….the technological imperative that has shaped the Western world is not arbitrary, nor is our surrender to it discretionary. The fostering of invention and the embrace of the new technologies that result are not ‘duties’ that we have somehow chosen to accept. They’re the consequences of economic forces that lie largely beyond our control.”

The big switch may or may not have been thrown. But if it has, in the long run, we’re unlikely to be able to resist it’s economic imperatives. Technology may not ultimately control the university. But in the long run, sadly, market forces do.