UK Web Focus (Brian Kelly)

Innovation and best practices for the Web

Save £1million and Move to the Cloud?

Posted by Brian Kelly on 20 Jan 2010

University of Westminster Deploys Google Apps

Before Christmas a message on the UCISA-Announce JISCMail list provided details of a University of Westminster goes Google Case Study. The email described how:

When the University of Westminster asked students what campus email system they wanted, 90% requested Google Apps, which lets colleges and universities provide customized versions of Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar, and other services on their school domain

and went on to describe how:

As a result, 25,000 students and staff at the University of Westminster now use Google Apps Education Edition — saving the university £1 million in the process“.

Perhaps unsurprisingly the case study itself is available on Google Docs.

Should All Our Institutions be Doing This?

We know from Peter Mandelson’s announcement that the higher education sector is set to lose about £900m of its funding over the next few years –  and in an article published recently in The Guardian entitled “Universities tell Gordon Brown: cuts will bring us to our knees” Universities were warning of the dangers of cuts of the order of up to £2.5bn.  And if, as appears likely, the Conservative party returns to power it is likely that a similar level (or perhaps even greater) level of cutbacks will be seen.

So how might the sector attempt to square the circle of maintaining the quality of its teaching and learning and research in the face of such cuts?  “Impossible”, you might think – and I would agree. But how might we go about minimising the impact of such cuts? Perhaps it is time for IT Services to radically reappraise the traditional approaches to the provision and hosting of services used to support institutional activities.

I believe there are over 160 higher educational institutions in the UK.  If all of them were to migrate to Google Apps, as the University of Westminster has done, this might make a significant saving for the sector – perhaps £160m if the cost saving reported by the University of Westminster was a typical average across the sector.

The Risks

Yes there are risks. These were discussed at the Educause 2009 conference last October. Chris Sexton, IT Services director at the University of Sheffield described a debate on the relevance of Cloud Services to higher educational institutions in a post on “Cloud computing – Hope or Hype?“. After summarising the key points Chris concluded:

So that was the debate in a nutshell. I went in firmly on the “hope ” side but tried to listen objectively, and I must say my mind wasn’t changed! The “hype” arguments came over as defensive and ill informed. She made a big thing of it just being a cost cutting exercise, but in the current financial climate I couldn’t see what was wrong with that! Many of the other issues she raised we’ve dealt with – vendor lock-in is something we’re all familiar with (hello – Microsoft anyone?). The privacy and security issues are being addressed, and the service levels of many of the vendors are better than those we’re providing – we’re just lucky that when our services go down they don’t hit the press!

I recently floated the suggestion that “Web 2.0 Changes Everything“. I think I was wrong – I think, for the UK’s higher education sector, it will be the cutbacks which will change everything for several years to come.  And unlike the changes which Margaret Thatcher brought about in the 1980s, this time there isn’t an alternative waiting impotently in the wings – it doesn’t matter which party wins the next election, the cuts will come.

And the debates we’ve had in the IT sector in the past about the dangers of vendor lock-in, the legal risks in trusting third party services with our data and the conflicts with EU data protection rules and UK legislation will, I suspect, be brushed aside. I am aware that in a post entitled Should I continue hosting blogs and wikis on campus? Stephen Downes feels that the answer is “Well, no, it’s not OK to host Canadian student data on an American server. Privacy laws are quite different between the two countries, and Canada admits students that the Americans may have an interest in spying upon“. These issues are even more relevant in the UK, with the more stringent data protection requirements across the EU, but I suspect there may be political maneuvers around such concerns such as the “Safe Harbor agreement”. It’salso worth adding that Stephen Downes’ comments were madein reponse to an initial blog post published on the D’arcyNorman blog – with Scott Leslie responding that he is “increasingly back pedaling on this: partly because it paints the issue as too black and white“.

I think we need to live with this changed environment. In an opinion piece entitled “The one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work for higher education” published in yesterday’s issue of the Times Higher Education University of Bath vice-chancellor Glynis Breakwell argued that “universities should stop assuming that everybody has to do a bit of everything“. We need to stop assuming that we need to host commodity services such as email, I feel.

And if you don’t like this suggestion, how do you propose to make a saving of £160 million? Do you really think we can sacrifice an institution (the University of Poppleton, perhaps) and hope that this will be enough for us to continue as we did in the past?

PS. There May Also be Opportunities!

I have pictured a move to the ousourcing of email and office applications as an option which institutions need to consider in light of cutbacks. But perhaps we should regard this impetus as an opportunity to enhance the services provided to our users. After all, as Chris Sexton pointed out in a post entitled “You can be a victim of your own success” following the decision to provide Google Mail for students at the University of Sheffield:

Formally announced the Google mail for students option last night by sending an email to all staff and students. Replies are split almost 50/50. From students saying this is great news, and from staff saying why can’t we have it!

And as I described at the start of this post: “When the University of Westminster asked students what campus email system they wanted, 90% requested Google Apps“.  Giving users what they want and freeing money to support core institutional activities which can’t be provided by commercial companies – why not?

10 Responses to “Save £1million and Move to the Cloud?”

  1. Rachel Henderson said

    Given the money that goes from the public sector to commercial s/w providers of bespoke university student management systems, and commercial publishers of journals, I can’t help thinking that Google, MS etc will reel us in then slap on the charges. I’m also aware that the confidentiality arguments against the cloud sound old-fashioned in this world of public data but instinctively I don’t trust them.

  2. Perhaps the first question to ask is whether we should be providing email and other commoditised services to students at all? What is the cost and benefit of giving students email services (whether institution based or outsourced) vs requiring students to supply an email address for corrsepondence?

  3. I think Owen is right that the first question should be should we offer email at all – particularly from my perspective as email address becomes more and more synonymous with a username / credential. I’m then interested in how the relationship or affiliation of the user is established no matter where the identity is provisioned.

    At the moment in the SAML world we tend to assume that the ‘university credential’ is the username and password set that we should be focusing on. This is normally (but not always!) the same for network login and e-mail where an institution is offering internal email.

    Is this right? Perhaps the credential students would rather primarily associate with is actually the email address / password…where-ever that might be?

  4. Hi Brian,

    Thanks for this.

    I blogged on Google, Microsoft and HE: outsourcing the student and staff experience:

    Warren Pearce has also blogged on over-reliance on tech:

    This is a complex issue to often reduced to cost or undeliberated perceptions of good/bad. However, I fear some hard decisions need to be made. As you state public sector finances are in a mess…


    • Hi Richard
      Many thanks for the link to your blog post – very relevant, which I missed when you published it.

      I very much agree with your comments on the need for a risk assessment approach to the issue of outsourcing. I would add, though, that the situation is now much worse for higher education than it was when you wrote your article in August last year :-(

  5. Let’s face it, gmail provides a much better service than the typical student mail service offering in Universities. The economic case is less clear – I doubt hiving off student mail to the cloud saves significant cash if you’re still running email for staff in-house. You’ll still need the mail sysadmin; it’s payroll rather than hardware/software costs that eats the lion’s share of an IT budget these days.

    Also, information is the lifeblood of Universities, so can we trust it to MS or Google with no local backup?

  6. Nick Sharratt said

    First I would note that even if all HEI switched and each that switched saved £1M, it wouldn’t translate to £160M as a significant number have already outsourced.

    Second, this institute was spending £1M in te first place on hosting the services? Were they using gold plated server racks and delivering each e-mail with a complimentary mint? Ok, hosting isn’t cheap but to have been costing well over £1M pa given the residual costs of maintaining the connection services etc with the corporate systems would seem high.

    Thirdly, for those HEI who don’t provide their staff/students with good services already then outsourcing to Google or MS live@edu is a no brainer – but where the current services exceed the feature set of either of those and the uptime too, then the only real benefit is the potential cost savings. Now, for UoP where I work I’d say the only benefit we’d really see is the huge increase in storage both MS and Google throw in and would need significant development effort to replicate the integration of services with either partner. It might be worth the additional investment for longer term cost savings and the additional storage, but it’s far from clear cut – and I suspect many other IT depts in HEIs face the same dilema.

    I find the question of whether HEI need to bother providing any of these services for students in particular interesting, although having a email address is something that is valued. It is used to authenticate students for various online deals (MS ultimate steal etc) and is often asked to be provided after students leave too. While Google and MS do offer to provide such an address for life, it could go a step further and HEI could just offer an e-mail redirect registration service.

    There are other IT services which I think students still value and are not geneally used outside such as e-portfolio systems so I suspect HEI will remain hosting some services for a while, and once you have the infrastructure for hosting, the ecconomics of outsourcing other services are not as clear cut.

    I believe the writing is on the wall for HEI’s hosting services, but I don’t see it being a quick solution for the immediate financial crisis.

    • Hi Nick

      Many thanks for your thoughtful comments.

      When you say “significant number [of HEIs] have already outsourced” it would be interesting to know exactly how many and what services they have outsourced.I think I heard that about 20 institutions had moved to Google mail (for student email?) and perhaps a smaller number of Microsoft.

      I would agree with your that the £1M saving does seem difficult to understand. However as this was published via a UCISA mailing lit I would hope that it would be possible to see how this figure was arrived at. I don’t know if there has been any discussion on any UCISA list.

      Your third point is very interesting -“outsourcing to Google or MS live@edu is a no brainer” if your institution doesn’t have existing quality services for which it would be costly to move away from. This implication is that the outsourced service would appear nowadays to provide the most cost-effective solution- the difficulty is moving from the existing environment. Similar conclusions were arrived at about 10 years ago when there was a study as to whether there would be significant saving to UK HEIs in a move from MS Office applications to open source alternatives – the conclusions were that the although there may be saving in the long run, there would be significant costs in implementing such changes, as well as the dangers of alienating users who are happy with the status quo (no reference to this work, I’m afraid – I;m recalling a conversation with an IT Services director who was in charge of the study).

      But such conclusions do lead us to ask which new(ish) services we may be looking to deploy which would be better hosted in the cloud? Although, as you say, these may not provide benefits to external providers if they are in a niche market.

      The issue of email addresses, trust and digital identity is also interesting – and Nicole Harris has already mentioned this. But does external hosting of email necessarily have to relate to a users’ email address? Can’t this issue be decoupled?

      Thanks again for the comments.

  7. Nick mentions that to make any real savings, you need to essentially reduce your payroll. This is worth considering in terms of risks as well – as we have seen in the Civil Service (I’m thinking particularly of the loss of data from HMRC) that a lack of internal expertise can lead to costs both in terms of being charged for services by 3rd parties, and to reputation. I don’t think this is a reason not to outsource, but we need to be careful in managing expectations related to cost savings, as we may want to keep certain expertise, even while outsource the related service?

  8. […] that core office functionality is being migrated to the Cloud. In January 2010 a post entitled Save £1million and Move to the Cloud? summarised experiences at the University of […]

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