When the cloud fails: Why universities went public anyway

The recession changed everything for higher education, including IT spending. But are universities trading in privacy for lower costs?

The failure of the Amazon cloud and slow recovery of the web service over the past day has questioned the increasing reliance on the cloud, and whether regardless of backup systems and distributed datacenters, can in fact the cloud be innately trusted to provide the highest of uptime?

Several prominent websites fell foul of Amazon's cloud failure, including Foursquare, Reddit and Quora, when a datacenter in northern Virginia hit networking errors.

However, universities, often with vast IT resources host their own solutions and services from the very heart of their campuses, have shifted from a private cloud to a public cloud approach; like Amazon's or Microsoft's competing platform.

But the global financial crisis in recent years -- something we as consumers and businesses alike are still acutely aware of as we continue to recover from the recession -- changed everything for universities, especially those in the United Kingdom.

The UK and the US were hit especially hard. With this, considering the vast majority of UK universities are public sector funded, and heavily subsidised by government.

During the recession, university budgets became tighter and more difficult to manage. Alongside this, small and medium businesses also struggled to maintain the upkeep of their internal IT infrastructure. The education sector was notably suffering, thus universities in particular were offered long-term financial respite during the global financial crisis by two major competitors in the growing cloud market: Google with its Apps for Education product, and Microsoft with its Live@edu service.

Both services are offered to educational institutions for no cost to the institutions or the students. It seemed like a no-brainer. Either a university could slash its degree programmes or internal development strategies, or it could wipe out the costs of its IT spending to an outsourced free agent.

Microsoft rolled out a beta version of its then upcoming email solution server, Exchange 2010 to Live@edu students, designed to gather anonymised feedback to improve the product before it is widely released to paying enterprise, non-education customers. Microsoft's stated goal is to help students familiarise themselves with the technologies "they are likely to encounter in their future workforce".

Google, however, with little motive other than to compete with its long-running rival, gains further credibility and references from these universities, schools and colleges to paying enterprise, non-education customers.

The recession caused many organisations and public sector universities in Europe, the UK in particular, to rethink their budgets and spending. With this, IT infrastructure suffered as costs for maintenance alone, without taking into account upgrades and existing contracts, became difficult to manage.

When two competing free services came along, offered by world leading technology companies, Google and Microsoft, universities began adopting outsourced cloud solutions as part of their extended, unmanaged infrastructure.

Between mid-2008 and early-2010, during the worst of the recession in the United Kingdom, dozens of universities, schools and colleges in the UK signed up to either Google Apps or Microsoft's Live@edu service, with most favouring the latter.

And that concludes today's brief history lesson.

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