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A lean, mean fighting machine: Higher ed in the cloud

April 11, 2012 / Evolve IP

It’s no secret that federal and state governments are looking to cut costs to balance their overstressed budgets, and funding for higher education is on the chopping block. Colleges and universities throughout the country are looking to minimize costs while maintaining a competitive advantage. If there’s one thing that the recession has changed about higher education, it’s that these institutions are realizing they must be run more like businesses in today’s economic climate.

The problem presents itself differently at large universities versus small. Larger universities, despite the economy, still have mountains of cash they can throw at the problem. However, their board of trustees are still challenged by the economic realities of doing more for less. Small universities, on the other hand, are extremely pressed, with many working on shoestring budgets and minimal maneuverability. At both extremes, institutional admins are looking to technology as a way to reduce costs and improve services to students, while simultaneously sustaining or improving educational outcomes.

While the scenarios and cash positions are different, there is a new technology that helps universities achieve these goals regardless of their size, staffing, endowment, or other conditions. That technology is “Virtual Desktop Infrastructure,” or “VDI.” Let’s call this virtualization for short.

Virtualization occurs when an institution’s IT infrastructure is moved to the cloud and the desktop environment is served up by the data center in the cloud to a remote device, making it available to anyone at anytime. From the user’s perspective, it’s hard to tell the difference. It looks, feels, and runs exactly the same as the current desktop system. The only difference: what if you could access your office desktop from your iPad while you’re in an IHOP having breakfast? That’s virtualization.

Compare that to what you have now: hundreds of desktop computers, each with their own operating system and software apps that have to be nursed along and supported; a data center that has to be maintained to keep the desktops running; and either no remote or mobile access, or having to jump through technology hoops to make it happen.

With physical machines, a university’s IT team spends the majority of its day fixing problems instead of what it should be doing: focusing on technology innovation, improving the organization’s business and educational agility, and improving the digital tools that support a university’s or college’s main goal: education.

Have you ever seen a university’s IT department the day after a computer virus breaks out? The line is out the door and around the block, and anything the IT staff had planned for that weeks is now shot. Compare that to if you had virtualized the university infrastructure in the cloud. One phone call to the cloud service provider and all of the systems would be rolled back to before the infection broke out. Boy, wouldn’t that be nice.

Here’s the most important thing. By capitalizing on virtualization, a university can provide the same level of services, plus enable mobility, disaster recovery, and business continuity — all while lowering its IT costs. Moving infrastructure to the cloud removes needless hardware from buildings (reducing future upgrade costs), frees up IT resources to tackle real problems, lowers energy costs for powering and cooling server equipment, and lessens your carbon footprint.

Colleges and universities are coming to the understanding that in today’s economy, education is a business first. The days of unlimited funding are over. The time has come to move over to the cloud for the benefit of the students and faculty alike.

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