Short-term COVID-19 cloud fixes may pose long-term headaches for universities
By Lee Thompson >>
AS AUSTRALIAN educational institutions rushed to adjust to the new norm of virtual classrooms, remote collaboration, and an absence of international students, cloud-based solutions have helped keep things together and a core service operating.
But could these short-term cloud fixes have long-term consequences?
In the space of a few weeks, educational institutions deployed ‘off-the-shelf’ cloud-based solutions such as virtual desktops and collaboration software – many provided free of charge by technology giants – to reshape the curriculum, provide a viable online learning experience for students, and help shield the industry from the impact of COVID-19.
However, in the understandable rush to provide and maintain services and the curriculum, many institutions may be too quick to lock themselves into services which meet their needs now, but may not be the most appropriate in a post COVID-19 world.
THE RENT-V-BUY ISSUE
Cloud is typically consumed as a private owned resource or a public rented one; and in some cases, a hybrid combination of both.
In order to get students and staff online as quickly as possible, most universities without the capabilities to do it privately have opted for the rent model.
It is fine in the short-term – making virtual classrooms viable is priority number one for higher education and should be achieved in whatever manner possible, for now.
But when society returns to some sense of normalcy – on a timeline that’s yet to be defined – the institutions that rapidly spun up public cloud services will face some difficult questions.
Will they continue using the applications they deployed to get through the COVID-19 restrictions? If so, how will all these services be integrated with their normal infrastructure?
Then, how will they continue to pay for these services as needs increase? If not, how will they retrieve the months of data that’s been stored on these platforms?
Personally, I believe much of the rapid online transition will stick, as students will now expect to use the services they have been over the past few months. This, however, will have implications for how universities operate long into the future.
BRACING FOR A DOWNTURN
There’s no telling what economic impact this crisis will have on the higher education sector, but it doesn’t seem many industries are in for an easy ride when the dust settles.
Already this year the COVID-19 pandemic has kept 114,000 international students – over 15 percent of the total based on last year’s figures – away from Australian shores. This number will likely jump much higher with new students unable to arrive for the second half of the year, increasing the financial pressure on the $40 billion-plus international education sector.
On one hand, this situation stresses the need for online virtual classes to be in operation; but it also means universities need to gain control of whatever expenditure they can to prepare for the times ahead.
Endless ‘rent cheques’ from public cloud providers clash strongly with this. There’s no way to easily turn that tap off, and worse still, as universities increase their cloud dependency a concept known as ‘data gravity’ can easily sink in, making universities more dependent on their provider even as costs soar with no end in sight.
To put it another way, if you’re reliant on using a taxi or ride-share to get from A to B, it’s going to cost you the same each time and this will add up over time. You can’t simply lower the cost because money’s tight.
With your own vehicle though, you can be sparing with how you use it. You can change the type of fuel you use. You can hold off purchasing a new one. You can change the oil yourself rather than using a mechanic.
In November, right when the journey to pandemic was in motion, analyst firm Gartner predicted Australian cloud spend would reach $8.8 billion by 2020 – an 18.3 percent rise compared with 2019 and a higher growth rate than the global average.
That figure is no doubt already irrelevant – the education industry needs to ensure its share of the investment is wisely spent wisely, not just in a public, rent-only format.
Australian universities need to start thinking about ‘buying their own car’, getting all the cloud capabilities they need but under a private or owned cloud-led model.
This will help continue the waves of innovation – and we need that – but within universities’ control from a cost and data perspective.
The ‘necessary’ is largely complete – students are learning online and, hopefully, adapting to the new model.
Now is the time to consider what the post-pandemic future of education looks like, and how university decision makers can ensure it's tenable to keep the sector alive and thriving.
About the author
Lee Thompson is managing director, Australia and New Zealand, for enterprise cloud computing group Nutanix. Nutanix works with a number of universities in Australia on their digital initiatives.