Tips for choosing a cloud-based service vendor
- Colleges and universities rightly view cloud vendor selection as a high-stakes decision requiring careful consideration
- Institutions need to address three functional categories: systems of convenience, systems of record, and systems of consequence
- Cloud vendors need to demonstrate the quality and transparency of their architecture and service offerings
With more than 30 years of experience in higher education IT management, Bill Thirsk doesn’t mince words when it comes to pinpointing why some educational institutions have been slow to adopt cloud-based software technologies. “I’m going to challenge the idea that there’s fear of the cloud,” he says. “I don’t think there’s ever been fear of the cloud. It’s not fear, it’s really a lack of trust for some of the people we do business with.”
Thirsk cites examples of companies that have come and gone from the industry or have changed names and direction multiple times over the years and suggests that when a brand-new sales rep from one of these firms shows up in his office looking to establish a long-term trust relationship with a system of consequence, “I can tell you, it’s just not going to happen.”
“We are a different industry from the others for sure,” says Thirsk. “We are much more parochial about what we do because our customers live with us. These students are with us 24x7—when we make purchases that are of consequence, we do it very, very carefully.”
Thirsk suggests that colleges and universities must sort various functions into three distinct pillars, and then plan their cloud strategy accordingly:
- Pillar 1: Systems of Convenience. First, says Thirsk, are the systems of convenience, like booking travel or expense reports. These systems make a lot of maintenance and require outside relationships, but if they go down or are corrupted, “they’re not going to kill you.”
- Pillar 2: Systems of Record. The second pillar consists of systems of record, which may be proprietary to the institution and need a higher level of security and reliable access.
- Pillar 3: Systems of Consequence. The third and most critical pillar, says Thirsk, consists of “systems of consequence,” such as financial data and personal information—key sources of insight that provide a competitive edge or systems that, if a data breach occurred, could cost the college or university not only its reputation but also a lot money.
All three tiers require serious consideration, says Thirsk, but he suggests that the systems of consequence place a greater burden on vendors in terms of reputation, reliability, consistency, and compatibility. “We’re extremely careful to go only with high-level, trusted partners for any service provision, particularly those that are cloud-based.”
So, what are the most important considerations for choosing a trusted partner or vendor for cloud-based services? “The first thing is that they have the right to be in the business,” says Thirsk. “By that I mean that their systems are well architected and not overly complex. A vendor has to earn the right to tell me as a technologist that they know what they’re doing.”
“The second thing to consider is whether the relationships underneath the system are fully disclosed,” says Thirsk. “When you go to most cloud providers, you’re signing for a Software as a Service function, sitting on top of someone else’s Platform as a Service and probably sitting on someone else’s real estate.” It’s critical for the educational institution to fully understand these relationships and what it is really signing up for.
Thirsk admits that some smaller institutions with limited budgets are turning to the cloud to increase their technology scope without having to make a lot of infrastructure improvements. Although he worries that this mindset can lead to unanticipated consequences—companies losing data, going out of business, suffering security breaches—he is encouraged that some vendors are moving to more focused, modular solutions that will give institutions better choices and additional flexibility. The challenge then becomes integration, says Thirsk, something both established vendors and new providers are beginning to address.
BILL THIRSK, Vice President of Information Technology/CIO, Marist College
Bill Thirsk serves as the vice president of Information Technology (IT) and CIO at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, New York, where he oversees all areas of IT. Bill is a recognized expert in higher education technology management, providing his insights to recognized publications such as The Wall Street Journal and CIO Magazine. Bill also actively serves as board chair of NYSERNet.org and on the board of directors of the Northeast Research and Education Network.
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