With contributions from Jean Blackburn, Michael Paskevicius, and Eric Schewe
OverviewThings have come a long way since 1999, when my library at the time opted for an interim solution during a system migration, hosting with the vendor only to find ourselves circulating materials on Chicago time.
At the 2016 BCNet Conference in Vancouver, I was part of a panel from Vancouver Island University (VIU) that considered opportunities and issues presented by cloud services for what we purposefully described as academic enterprise applications. In that presentation, The Cloud is Calling — Or is it Zombies of Death, Jean Blackburn and I from the VIU Library, Michael Paskevicius from the VIU Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning (CIEL), and Eric Schewe from VIU Information Technology (IT) represented diverse but convergent perspectives on the cloud, and shared our evolving thinking about critical questions and considerations in the use of cloud for academic IT services.
Encouraged by the favourable reception that met our presentation, we had good intentions to write it up for a wider practitioner audience, but as often happens, time got away from us when we got back to the office. Yet, it remains more important than ever to consider carefully how we make and communicate decisions about using the cloud. A year later, it seems useful to revisit the thinking of our panel in light of subsequent developments, and to affirm or update our critical questions and considerations. This post is meant to support that intentional review, and to share our thinking with those who may be engaging with similar work and questions. What follows is based on my notes and those of my co-presenters, together with observations about what has occurred for us since Spring 2016.
At BCNET 2016, and after
Our panel was motivated to submit a proposal about academic services and the cloud to BCNET because we perceived that many university academic departments such as ours were moving seemingly ad hoc into cloud services, and that opening a conversation between academic services and IT professionals about why and how we use the cloud could be instructive and productive. In concept, we were inspired by words borrowed from a library systems vendor webinar at around the same time: “The Cloud is Calling.” If that’s true, as it seems to be, what does it mean for technology-enabled academic services and the IT departments that we work with?
Jean Blackburn opened our panel by reviewing key findings of a 2015 presentation to BCNET by Bill Klug, in which he discussed his doctoral research on CIO attitudes (2014). We found that Klug’s conclusions didn’t really align with our own experiences, but perhaps suggested a disconnect between practical experiences of academic service departments and the perspectives of CIOs with respect to cloud adoption.
This disconnect seems consistent with the dissonance of prioritizing and allocating resources for academic alongside administrative computing that has long been typical of many academic institutions. What is new lately is the agency that cloud solutions offer to users, appearing to free them in many cases from constraints of institutional IT infrastructure.
A downside can be that cloud services may also incline adopters away from encountering helpful local processes and advice, resulting in surprising challenges if issues arise. In view of such risks, the following observation resonated with our panel of representatives from different university service units:
If the institution does not create a cloud strategy, it may inherit an ‘accidental strategy’ formed around consumer choice. Consumer adoption of cloud services is creating a situation where the ‘cloudification’ of institutional services will take place with or without institutional leadership (Katz 2009).
Through our panel conversations leading up to the presentation at BCNET we came to better understand our respective views on the benefits and challenges of providing institutional, academic services through cloud applications, and developed this guiding question:
“How do academic units and IT work together to advance cloud initiatives, so that IT doesn’t only see them when they become a problem?”
As context for discussing our local cloud-based initiatives, Eric Schewe offered an overview of VIU network & IT infrastructure, demonstrating the complex and multiple demands that local IT resources at a small university may contend with:
- 1 Main Campus (Nanaimo), 6 Remote Campuses
- Centralized IT shop
- 200+ Servers, VMware Infrastructure (moving off Hyper), Centralized NetApp Storage
- 2 Server Technicians responsible for hardware up including the majority of applications running on servers, backups and storage
Acknowledging the competing demands on these local IT resources, our panelists from academic service departments proceeded to talk about how we see the potential of the cloud, with reference to specific experiences, and sharing some factors that have informed our thinking and decision making.
Library systems overview
For an audience made up of IT professionals with varying or even no familiarity with library technologies, I offered background about the interconnecting systems that support the work that the Library does on behalf of the University. In doing this, I used a visual that colleague Dan Sifton created for the purpose of communicating about our library systems environment.
In summary, technology-enabled library functions include:
- acquiring and managing access to online & physical collections
- managing associated rights and licenses
- managing user data
- storing, presenting and preserving content, and metadata related to content
- conducting assessment and analysis activity
- tracking payments and commitments of funds
- managing loans to and from other libraries
As a general comment, the systems that libraries use can be an eclectic mix of local vs. hosted, small vs. complex, open vs. proprietary, and may rely on data exchange with other university enterprise systems such as student and human resources information systems. Some of these are legacy systems, because libraries have been technology-powered for decades. Systems may be in various conditions with respect to updating, depending on available resources or other considerations related to business processes.
Many academic libraries find that it can be difficult to advocate for prioritization of library systems because it’s hard to compete with other worthy and diverse institutional priorities when resources are constrained. This is made more difficult because the one-off or specialized nature of some library IT applications or requests means that there may be little transfer of skill to other institutional IT projects. Yet library service outcomes on behalf of students, faculty and staff still need to be achieved.
While our library relies on IT for network infrastructure, security and server side admin, we have technical capacity in the library team, particularly at the application level. Naturally, in these circumstances we became interested in the potential of cloud applications as a means to develop and maintain services that library users expect when it may not be possible or appropriate to prioritize library technology projects against other institutional initiatives.
As of 2016 our library had implemented a number of cloud services and was actively pursuing others. In our presentation we referred to these cases to illustrate factors in our decision making, which has evolved with successive experiences. In evaluating each potential cloud service we ask critical questions, trying to achieve a good service outcome while avoiding scenarios in which the undead may return to consume the brains of local IT personnel. The cases that we discussed illustrate that our decision making considers a range of critical factors resulting in different outcomes. There are cases where we have adopted a cloud solution with few barriers and much satisfaction. There are others instances where we have struggled to find an appropriate provider for the nature of the application.
To begin with a success story, the first cloud project at the VIU Library began in 2009, initially focusing on library guides and information that otherwise would be delivered using the university website. We were looking for a service that would be simpler and more flexible for staff to use than the CMS tools on offer, that would be reasonably customizable, low cost, and also offer enhanced library-specific functionality. Those requirements were fulfilled in the cloud-based service that we selected, with excellent reliability and support, setting a high bar for our expectations of other cloud service providers. Since the initial implementation additional modules have been developed by the same provider and we have adopted some of these to replace, improve, or augment library web-based services, where these meet a need and are compatible with privacy requirements in our jurisdiction. Over time these services have included cloud-based tools for room and resource booking, events calendar, FAQ, surveys, statistics tracking, and chat.
In a positive experience of a different kind, the Library’s cloud-based digital preservation service, Archivematica as a Service, did not replace or improve upon an existing technology, but rather allowed us to develop new capacity and services to engage in digital preservation of local content in perpetuity. As a project of COPPUL (Council of Prairie and Pacific University Libraries) this cloud-hosted service entails a formal collaborative arrangement for access not only to low-cost, non-commercial storage for preserved content (in UBC’s EduCloud), but also to the expert community in our peer network of libraries, and to vendor software admin services. This type of long-term digital preservation is distinct from backups that IT does to ensure business continuity or disaster recovery in the short term. Offering digital preservation services would not have been possible if we were relying on institutional resources alone. As stated by COPPUL in launching their Digital Preservation Network:
Providing meaningful access to society’s digital record over the long term is one of the critical issues of our time, especially in a world of increasing political instability and environmental risks. The technical, organizational, legal and economic challenges associated with digital preservation are significant, and no single institution can tackle them alone (2017).
Participating in digital preservation through this innovative cloud-based arrangement, the Library relies on University network infrastructure for access to storage and services, but requires no intervention at all from institutional IT for administration of the application. This model is very appealing since the Library often needs access not only to applications but to server-side services that it may not make sense to develop or maintain at our institutional scale.
In presenting to the BCNET audience, I also discussed examples where upon evaluation cloud services were not, or not yet, a good fit. We were and remain very interested in alternatives to our licensed, proprietary, integrated library system. There are cloud-based options, but it has been hard to find a cost-effective, functional solution that can also appropriately manage essential integrations with university enterprise systems that supply and maintain patron information. Compliance with our governing privacy legislation in BC is key in selecting an integrated library system because of the personal information that an ILS stores. As of Spring 2016, and since, there wasn’t a cloud ILS option in the commercial marketplace that could ensure data would be kept in Canada. This may change, or regulatory factors may change, so this is something that we watch.
Similarly, a year ago it was true that we could not source a cloud provider for the Library’s proxy service. Ezproxy is commonly used by libraries to provide off campus library users with IP-based access to licensed library resources. As with an integrated library system there are considerations related to privacy of user information; login credentials might conceivably be used to link patrons to specific information sources that they have accessed. Though less complex than an integrated library system, ezproxy requires regular upgrades and maintenance and it could be efficient to arrange for these services with a dedicated cloud provider. Over time we have looked for a service provider in Canada. In Spring 2016 there was no such provider, but since then the BC Libraries Cooperative has facilitated ezproxy hosting for some members. We remain interested in that possibility if it continues and expands, and in the experiences of those libraries that have engaged with that service.
While at BCNET in 2016, the Library was actively pursuing cloud hosting and services for our institutional repository, which is on the open source DSpace platform. The content and purpose of our particular DSpace implementation is a good fit for cloud. It houses local scholarship and special collections that are meant to be made public, and integrates with our hosted digital preservation system. We have no sensitive user information and maintain no user accounts within the system. At that time we were finding it difficult to identify a viable cloud solution, with volatility among (mostly commercial) service providers eliminating one of very few promising possibilities after months of preliminary negotiation.
Subsequently, we found a provider to host and support our institutional repository, and now have completed a migration with several version upgrades, and are looking forward to enhancements, none of which could be effectively prioritized while the application was maintained in-house. We have been able to relieve our local IT department of what they must have regarded as a ‘special snowflake’ application, and beyond the migration, our ongoing requirement for local infrastructure support is now limited to DNS work and access to the application via the local network infrastructure. These are very welcome developments at a time when the institutional repository is experiencing unprecedented interest and growth as a foundational piece of our local scholarly infrastructure. At the same time, we were conscious that our new service provider was one of very few providing services in this space, and that we would need to monitor developments closely. In fact at the time of this post we are seeing further volatility and are evaluating both short and longer term strategies, including the possibility that we may need to change platforms or provider again.
In summary, our Library’s experiences suggest that there are cases where cloud can offer relative advantage, reasonable cost, regulatory compatibility, good support, a reasonable expectation of stability, and neutral impact if not downright relief for local IT. When prerequisite considerations are satisfied, we have found it advantageous to deliver services in this mode. We expect to continue with this approach when we can find solutions that respond well to the requirements and factors that these cases illustrate.
CIEL Systems Overview
Michael Paskevicius began his remarks by establishing the overall philosophy of VIU’s Centre for Innovation and Excellence in Learning (CIEL) in supporting software applications for teaching and learning. He elaborated this approach to include principles and factors such as:
- A self-service approach allowing instructors to create and edit their own content and projects
- Striving for unified login for all services – which means we rely on centralized local authentication systems
- Integration of services whenever possible
- Ensuring mobile accessibility whenever possible
- Maintaining security and confidentiality of all information
- Ensuring compliance with BC’s Freedom of Information and Protection of Privacy Act (FIPPA)
- Providing direct technical and pedagogical support for all educational technology services
Michael explained that CIEL is responsible for a number of VIU systems that facilitate teaching and learning. This entails supporting faculty and students in the use of the Learning Management System (LMS) BrightSpace by D2L, Kaltura streaming media platform, WordPress blogs and websites, iPeer and Calibrated Peer Review peer review platforms and Collaborate Ultra synchronous online meeting spaces. CIEL also hosts systems to support academic development activities such as curriculum and program review, the CIEL website, and an issue tracking system. All of these systems rely on authentication infrastructure supported by VIU IT.
Michael described CIEL’s hybrid approach to cloud adoption, essentially choosing to host each of the aforementioned systems where it made most sense at the time. Where cloud providers in Canada were available during implementation they explored those options, and they also have looked for opportunities to migrate systems to the cloud when and where those options have emerged. Opportunities to move to the cloud through shared service agreements in the province have more recently arisen, allowing us to move services previously hosted on site into cloud infrastructure. An example of this includes the Kaltura streaming media service, which is now available as a centralized service managed by BCNet and hosted at UBC. The advantage of moving into the BCNet cloud included more regular updates to the service, enhanced and scalable infrastructure, and access to a user community of other educators using the service.
As in the Library cases described earlier, CIEL typically handles the application level administration of these systems. This allows them to ensure an approach to documentation, interface, look and feel, and terminology that is from a teaching and learning perspective. In some cases the cloud provider will assist with administering a system, and Michael indicated that this can create complexity when things go wrong. Based on experience, CIEL has negotiated some policies and practices to help local IT triage cases that involve cloud services, including workflows for navigating software vendor support, cloud infrastructure support, and local IT. Figuring out where the problem lies when there are more parties involved in supporting a given service or platform presents a greater challenge, and getting initial troubleshooting steps wrong can lead to further downtime. As the administrators of applications CIEL staff are responsible for getting the right information to the right support desk as quickly as possible. Michael stated that they have had mixed success at doing this, but are getting better with experience.
Additional challenges, which are harder to resolve, are presented when cloud support technicians are situated all over the world. We do not always know where our technical supports are based. This can raise challenges related to data and system access from locations outside Canada. Further complexity is introduced when publishers of educational content push to connect to their own cloud platforms from within the LMS. This can occur when faculty are enticed into proprietary content management systems, often based in the US. These most often rely on linkages to the locally authenticated LMS to control access and pass user credentials back and forth. Michael has found these examples challenging to work with while maintaining user privacy as required, and it can be difficult to support faculty and students who are using these systems when it is not always clear where in the integrated systems landscape they may be working. That said, there are still very local aspects to supporting access to cloud-based systems; to effectively support students who access services through labs managed by VIU IT, good communication about IT desktop management is essential.
Returning to the notion of a “hybrid” systems strategy, Michael concluded his remarks with reference to the CIEL Systems Architecture map (2016). This is included below with a systems maps for 2017 which has evolved significantly since last year.
Both images indicate ongoing reliance on local IT for network and authentication services, and Michael reinforced that the relationship with local IT is integral to CIEL’s successful use of the cloud. Furthermore migration into the cloud, as happened with the Kaltura service, also relies heavily on support from local IT. Ultimately academic service departments use local networks to provide cloud-based services, and consistent connections to authentication systems are critical to success. At the time of the presentation, only one of CIEL’s cloud systems, Collaborate, did not integrate with local infrastructure, instead integrating through the hosted LMS (D2L), which relies on integration with the local student information system for authentication. All but one of CIEL’s subsequent systems were relying on local IT authentication services, and all relied on local email and DNS. This remains true for both locally hosted and cloud hosted services.
In presentation at BCNET 2016, and in conversations leading up to it, Eric offered valuable insights from IT about use of cloud technologies. Having participated in multiple cloud migrations at VIU, with varying levels of success, Eric drew on these cloud migration experiences to frame his comments:
- Moodle to BC Campus
- Kaltura to Rackforce
- Piloting BCnet EduCloud services
Recalling Michael’s comments about the complexities of troubleshooting and support, Eric observed that moving to the cloud looks easier until things go wrong. Communicating with local IT experts before adopting a cloud solution may help to clarify expectations, anticipate issues, and establish protocols for addressing the challenges that will inevitably arise.
Critical questions and the way ahead
In closing, our panel shared an evolving framework of critical questions and considerations in the use of cloud for academic IT services that we developed through conversations about our respective experiences. While we saw this as a useful guiding document for ourselves and to use in communication with others, it was important to us that it not become unduly prescriptive or inflexible; consequently it is prefaced with this statement of intention:
These critical questions and considerations are intended as the basis for a responsive, evolving decision aid, and not as prescriptive elements in, for example, a weighting tool that might seek to simplify and quantify complex, context-dependent information. Many of the factors below are assessed qualitatively. The significance of each, and availability and completeness of the information will vary per situation…
As we contributed and refined our thinking, we realized that our considerations could be broadly grouped as follows:
- Strategic “relative advantage” considerations (pedagogy, service, capacity…)
- Technical considerations
- Social considerations
- Legal considerations
- Financial considerations
We provided a link to our critical questions and considerations document and invited the BCNET audience to comment in the lively discussion period that followed the presentation. We were pleased to receive thoughtful comments and questions that further shaped our thinking about how we engage with cloud services, including this comment that we incorporated to our list of considerations:
“Think about exit strategy at the beginning: In negotiating, document expectations and communicate to service provider to confirm understanding…”
As follow up, attendee and colleague Andrew Zoltay from Royal Roads University was motivated to host a Knowledge Café later in the conference, and to advocate for a cloud computing forum on the BCNET Wiki, as an ongoing venue for sharing experiences and resources related to cloud computing. While the forum hasn’t been very active, perhaps its existence will serve as a reminder that there are principles to revisit and a multi-stakeholder conversation to carry on in order to arrive best use of cloud technologies for academic computing.
Reviewing our panel’s critical questions and considerations a year later, and reflecting on how our systems have continued to evolve since then to make informed use of cloud technologies and services, it seems that the decision aid and approach that we began to develop is still supporting us well. We will no doubt make adjustments as we continue to learn from our experiences and experiments, but the framework and high level categories seem likely to offer useful guidance into the future.
Blackburn, J., McFarland, D., Paskevicius, M., & Schewe, E. (2016). Critical questions and considerations in the use of cloud for academic IT services. Retrieved from https://docs.google.com/document/d/1OGqzwTJRH6Zy14Oqx6DIkfcAb81-OzRxGBXwpuQT_II/edit?usp=sharing
Council of Prairie and Pacific University Libraries (2017). COPPUL builds for the future, establishes the COPPUL Digital Preservation Network. Retrieved from http://coppul.ca/blog/2017/04/coppul-builds-future-establishes-coppul-digital-preservation-network
Katz, R. N., Goldstein, P. J., & Yanosky, R. (2009). Demystifying cloud
computing for higher education. EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research Bulletin, 19, 1-13. Retrieved from https://net.educause.edu/ir/library/pdf/ERB0919.pdf
Klug, B. (2015). What Factors Determine Cloud Computing Adoption by Colleges and Universities. BCNET Conference 2015. Retrieved from https://vimeo.com/127094368
Klug, W. E. (2014). The determinants of cloud computing adoption by colleges and universities. Available from ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1527001253?accountid=12246