Session Summary: Cloud Computing and Advanced Networking – Developments in HE

Greg Jackson, Vice President for Policy and Analysis at EDUCAUSE, began his presentation by providing some background to EDUCAUSE, which is the largest and oldest group examining the use of information technology to enhance higher education and one of the sponsors of CNI. They do a lot of work for the profession including professional development and conferences, actively look at teaching and learning and how to integrate the use of technology in those areas, support a Centre for Applied Research which looks applies research from other contexts, and examine policies to make sure that they don’t accidentally have a negative effect on education.

Jackson introduced an image of clouds, observing that we often think of clouds at dawn, bringing in a new day with a lot of excitement stemming from that, but also observing that clouds can sometimes come at the end of the day indicating that things are about to become very dark. Jackson used this analogy to illustrate that we are at a point where cloud infrastructure is caught between these two states. There is a great enthusiasm for what is possible, but also a great worry about the complexity of the problems involved. The second problem he identified was that very often what we do and what we say we need to do in order to achieve things can be very different.

He questioned why are we suddenly having conversations where we take as a given that cloud services are something that we should be thinking about, whereas five years ago people were not having that conversation. One of the reasons he identified was the growth of networking capability to the point where cloud services become practical. Jackson described how global networking has advanced so it is now very difficult to find places in the world where you cannot get the bandwidth that you need. However, this is only useful if you have national infrastructure, so he also described the evolution of optical systems in the US where they are creating a national backbone network that connects to more regional and local networks. He noted that several other countries have been ahead of the US in this respect, but this trend is certainly replicated elsewhere in the world. High speed networking is therefore moving rapidly towards the point of reaching individual homes, not just institutions, which means that we can stop worrying about where something is and start thinking about what it is.

He then gave some background to the evolution of commercial cloud services using their excess capacity including players like Microsoft Cloud Services, Google Code and Amazon Web Services. Despite reticence that these services do not do what the institution would do if it were developing these services themselves to meet the detailed list of very specialised requirements their users say they need when asked, Jackson observed that empirically, once people are offered something reasonably good but free, they will go for it. These commercial cases have shown higher education service developers that a low pricing point will encourage people to adapt.

The development of the networking capabilities and the evolution of commercial cloud services, together with the intellectual authorities (including PEW) pronouncing that the future is in the cloud, acted as prologues for Jackson, bringing us to the point of observing that we are at a moment when things are changing not just because cloud computing is a buzz term, but because it represents a fundamental change in the way we are thinking.

Next, Jackson highlighted some of the challenges for cloud computing within HE. He used a video clip of Jack Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces, trying to circumvent a waitress when he wanted to order something that was not on the menu. This illustrated that what is being offered and what one wants usually don’t match. We need to aggregate demand and work together together to procures from the vendor community. He broke these down into categories of types of activities that you might expect institutions to club together to do, and highlighted the different possible approaches to aggregating their needs to move forward, depending on the situation. These included creating collective entities from groups of institutions, using brokered procurement models and developing umbrella terms to negotiate better deals with vendors. He noted that there are already success stories, particularly collectives purchasing networking capacity, but there are still areas where institutions could work together more effectively with respect to cloud services.

Another challenge related to authentication and authorisation, which can represent particular problems for cloud services. It is difficult to know that a person or corporation exists when providing cloud services, and if they exist, it is difficult to know that the person you are dealing with is the person you think you are dealing with. There are also more subtle issues that come into play, particularly when the same person can be identified in different ways, or there can be confusion with identities between individuals with similar names within institutions.

Jackson also cited privacy and confidentiality as areas of concern for institutions, with fears of the technology “letting things out”. Cloud technologies can make it easier to get to data, but there is a worry about the cloud that if we put things in a space that we don’t control, the security of the information could be compromised. He noted that profiling by services like Google (for advertising purposes) can lead to breaches of confidentiality as when we start sharing more information about ourselves, we start sharing things we don’t mean to share.

Finally physical location is a challenge for cloud services, as you don’t necessarily know where the information is being held. If it is outside of the country, this can present particular legal problems for certain types of data.

Jackson then moved on to discuss some of the possible solutions that are emerging, including work by EDUCAUSE to examine these areas. He discussed the idea of a federated identity, whereby the parent organisation issues credentials and we can trust to help solve the authentication problem. However, there are issues in establishing standards for verification and a mechanism for issuing the required information and no more. This is moving forward quickly, but the question is: who issues the first credential for the individual user? The college? Jackson observed that by the time most people get to college they already have an online identify – usually a Google ID, except that Google does not verify identity.

He concluded by discussing attitudes to the risks presented by cloud networking. The frequent question is: “Isn’t it riskier to go to the cloud rather than do things myself?” Jackson argued that there is just a change in the risk portfolio of what you do. We need a mechanism to manage the risk and we need to think about how we talk about cloud computing so it remains the cloud of the optimistic dawn, not the the sunset.