Is cloud the cost-conscious choice for smaller institutions?
- Adapt quickly and customise your systems
- Do a cost-benefit analysis
- IT can be a strategic business partner across campus
Wilkes University is a small, private institution in Pennsylvania offering an array of liberal arts and professional programmes to 2,500 undergraduate and 1,500 graduate students.
For many years, the university hosted its applications and data in the cloud and outsourced management to Ellucian. But in 2014, Wilkes decided it was time to re-assess its IT model, including what it would take to bring everything in house.
According to Gerald Korea, Wilkes’ Director, Administrative/Enterprise Services, keeping core systems and services in the cloud was the clear choice. He spoke with Ellucian about the decision making process and the benefits of private hosting.
Ellucian: What factors went into your assessment of a cloud vs. on-premise deployment model?
Korea: Our journey might be a bit unusual in that, until three years ago, Ellucian was not only hosting our applications in the cloud, but managing everything for us. This was even before they transitioned to AWS (Amazon Web Services).
In 2014, we decided we needed to provide deeper IT support for internal constituents—to better help departments campus wide achieve their strategic goals. That meant building in-house staff capacity. So we assessed whether to bring hosting in house as well.
Our cost/benefit analysis took several things into account, including:
- Infrastructure: Our infrastructure—servers, server rooms, power, HVAC, network, etc.—hadn’t been used in years and would have required costly upgrades. Especially if we wanted to get to the level of capacity and security we had with private hosting. In the end, monthly hosting costs were going to be far less than the capital expenses required to build and maintain an in-house operation.
- Labour/expertise: We looked at the number of people we would have to bring on in order to operate our systems and servers with the level of quality and efficiency we currently had with private hosting. In the end, the cost of hiring good database administrators and other highly skilled positions would have been too high, not to mention the challenge of finding talent. If we were going to add staff, we wanted to add people who could support strategic goals, not manage servers.
- Security/risk management: As information security gets increasingly complex, most small institutions—and some large ones as well—will find it hard to replicate and afford the level of reliability, redundancy, and disaster recovery that you can get with a host like AWS (or other top providers). Ultimately, we decided we wanted to invest in our own area of expertise—education and student success—and rely on the security experts to handle our data.
Ellucian: What role does your in-house IT team play now within the institution?
Korea: One of the primary drivers behind our decision to outsource server and system maintenance to the cloud was allowing our internal team to serve as a strategic business partner to departments across campus. Instead of putting out fires on the back end, we need to be out front—visible, available, providing hands on support, and looking to the future, not just getting through the day.
For example, I have one person dedicated to custom report writing and helping each department maximise use of data to improve decision making. And, as we upgrade to the new version of our ERP, there is a lot of back end work that my team doesn’t have to worry about. We can remain solely focused on what’s changing, how that will impact our business, and how to communicate that to our users.
I think a lot of people worry that, in a cloud world, IT will become less relevant. But it’s just the opposite. We now have the time we need to become highly relevant to advancing the strategic goals of the institution.
Ellucian: Is cloud the clear choice for most small institutions?
Korea: It’s hard to come up with one formula that works for everyone. It all depends on your current state technology, your needs, your short vs. long term goals.
For example, some schools may have recently upgraded their infrastructure, making it smarter to keep hosting in house for awhile to leverage that investment. Some may need larger server capacity in anticipation of growth, which would make purchasing their own more cost effective than the pay-as-you-go cloud model we chose.
In the end, it’s largely about math. But there is also a strategic element. Think about how you want to spend your time. There’s a huge value to having someone else keeping your data secure and your technology backbone running smoothly, so that you can stay focused on your mission. (Explore different pathways to the cloud, including benefits and tradeoffs.)
Ellucian: Are there any drawbacks to cloud that smaller institutions should be aware of?
Korea: In some cases, you might not have as much opportunity to customise your systems and applications, but that hasn’t been a huge obstacle for us. We still have a lot of free reign to make changes, there are just certain limits. We learned to adapt pretty quickly, and I doubt if you asked anyone today whether they feel inhibited they would say Yes.
For additional resources to help you plan your journey to the cloud, please visit our Pathways to the Cloud page.