Cloud computing inevitable? Not so fast, educator says

DENVER -- Is cloud computing inevitable? Maybe, but IT still has a lot of questions to ask before floating away on its promises, according to Melissa Woo, director of cyberinfrastructure and network and operations services at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

FAQ: Cloud computing demystified

Michael Dieckmann, CIO at the University of West Florida, thinks otherwise and the two spent Wednesday at the annual Educause conference debating the hype vs. the hope around commercial cloud computing that promises to cut IT costs and provide efficiencies.

Woo's contention isn't so much that the cloud won't emerge as an option, but that IT still has a lot of questions to ask before floating away on its promises.

"Why is the conversation always when, why are we not asking why," she said to a packed Educause session that with a raising of hands showed the audience of higher-ed IT pros are on the fence over cloud computing. "Gartner has cloud computing at the peak of inflated expectations on its hype cycle," she said.

Woo noted recent reports of outages by large providers should grab attention. This week, cloud provider Rackspace reported its third outage since June. Last month, Microsoft reported it lost the data stored by users of T-Mobile's Sidekick service before eventually recovering most of the data. And Google, which provides e-mail services for students, faculty and staff on Dieckmann's campus, has had numerous outages that have frustrated users so much that Google developed a Google Apps Status Dashboard and pumps updates to users via RSS.

"And what about the privacy risks, security risks? Where is that data being stored? Where is research data being stored? How do you handle identity and access management, what happens if the cloud service falls out from under you?" Woo said.

Dieckmann countered that the cloud question is most relevant for commodity services, but the tricky part is that the definition of commodity services is constantly changing.

"To many people e-mail is e-mail," he said. "Storage is becoming more of a commodity. When that service can come externally just are reliably and with the same service levels we can provide why do we need to spend significant resources to run it in-house?"

But on the cost issue, Woo's contention is that most universities don't have a true handle on costs and therefore can't determine if the cloud is saving money.

"Another thing to think about is are we just cost shifting. Are we throwing things over the wall for others to worry about," said Woo, who wonders about the burden put on legal and purchasing departments. "We are not just looking at saving IT costs but costs across the institution."

Dieckmann, in part, conceded Woo's point, saying he spends more time now with UWF's general counsel than he did before venturing out into the cloud.

But Dieckmann compared the cloud with what has been happening internally in IT over the past few years in terms of centralizing servers into data centers and adding virtualization for added efficiencies and benefits. He said many of the same arguments IT made for centralization are now being turned against them via the cloud debate.

"Part of what is uncomfortable here is that it is our apple cart that is now being upset," he said. "But we need not approach this as a poison pill. There are many advantages and we should be leading here rather than following."

Woo contends the transfer to centralized IT has been based on trust, but questioned whether that same trust exists in the cloud.

"Can we negotiate good service-level agreements (SLA). We don't have the maturity to negotiate those. What if the cloud provider breaks the SLA, do we know how to measure harm if our storage disappears," she said.

"We need to come to grips with the inevitability of the cloud," Dieckmann says. The massive economy of scale involved in cloud computing can make it the most cost effective way to provide services for higher education, he contends. "Cost is not a minor concern today."

When evaluating cloud services, he says users must focus on how the cloud alters the parameters on the old notion of outsourcing, an idea that was hot nearly a decade years ago but lost its sizzle for technological and other reasons.

The cloud has benefits that can't be ignored, Dieckmann says, such as delivering infrastructure as a service, support for massive sharing, flexibility and a pay-as-you-go model.

He concedes the debate has many layers, but he points out that end-users have their own cloud choices now and that could eventually mean less IT control.

"Our clients are voting with their feet," he said, in reference to students and faculty who go out on their own to online services. "Our challenge will be to combat the choices users make and to keep coherent IT enforcement," he said.

"The next evolution of this is academic departments deciding to using the cloud and they are not doing that with IT or general counsel input. In some cases we have no control. We need to show some leadership."

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This story, "Cloud computing inevitable? Not so fast, educator says" was originally published by Network World.

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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