UK Web Focus

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Why We Should All Use Externally-Hosted Web Services

Posted by Brian Kelly (UK Web Focus) on 6 November 2007

There may be an argument that in higher education we have no need to make use of externally hosted Web services, such as blogs, wikis, photographic sharing sites, etc. as institutions will typically have IT services departments with expertise in installing and supporting enterprise systems. And we also have a wide range of JISC services which can provide access to applications on a national basis, including services such as JISCMail which are used by all institutions, as well as more niche services aimed at the research community.

However. although this view was probably true ten years ago, I feel that it ignores a significant change to the IT landscape over the past few years: the use of networked services outside of a work context and use by large numbers of people who aren’t members of the HE community. I suspect a large number of users of in-house IT services will also be likely to make use of IT services for social purposes – such as storing personal photographs and sharing them with friends and family. In such cases it may not be possible to make use of an institutional service. So we, as individuals, will need to learn how to use such services and evaluate the risks of such services. It is not only institutions which will need to safeguard access to teaching and learning and research resources – individual members of the institutions, staff and students, will need to safeguard their precious digital assets.

I also feel that we can also expect to see lecturers who use such services for personal use to explore the potential of such services in teaching. Indeed shouldn’t institutions be pro-active in this, in order to ensure that students (and staff) are experienced in such risk management issues when they leave the institution?

Is this how institutions see things? Or do they focus on just providing a safe, managed, secure IT environment? And if the latter approach is taken, how can we expect staff and students to react when they leave the nest?  After all, we no longer expect to me in the same jobs for life.

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4 Responses to “Why We Should All Use Externally-Hosted Web Services”

  1. Neil Witt said

    There’s an assumption that services departments with expertise in installing and supporting enterprise systems are willing to embrace new technologies and actually have the required expertise.

    Having been through various battles to getting new systems installed (including the legendry 96 person ‘web strategy’ group) it can be a long, uphill struggle to get innovative or even new technologies adopted by the centre. ‘If it ain’t in a Microsoft box it ain’t coming in is a phrase I’ll never forget.

    My own insitution, like many others, is seen by some staff of offering a restrictive set of services which has led to staff hosting their own learning materials off campus for many years, these people are the ones embracing Web2.0 in their teaching well away from the services provided by the institution.

    My own projects are all hosted outside the University and I know other Universities and projects use the same supplier and host I use where you don’t have to explain that Tomcat and Apache are not aircraft.

    There’s a lot of expertise in the commercial sector with experience of education and at the end of the day I like having a contract that I can use as leverage to meet deadlines rather than a Service Level Agreement that is often ignored.

  2. Peter Cliff said

    Right then, where did I put that Amazon Web Services application form? :-)

  3. John Dale said

    At the Web 2.0 Expo in Berlin this week, Amazon announced that both S3 for storage and EC2 for computation are now available as European-hosted services rather than US ones, reducing the latency down from ~1s to something much more manageable. I think this is potentially an interesting middle ground; it’s not an end-user service as such, but it’s a very convenient way of being able to deliver and scale the services you think are important without having to provide the whole of the infrastructure stack.

  4. Thanks for the info, John.

    Note that in his talk on Building Highly Scalable Web Applications at IWMW 2007 Jeff Barr, Amazon was asked about the legal issues of using a service based outside the EU. He told us that Amazon were intending to host a ervice in the EU to address this concern. It’s good to hear that this has now been implemented.

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