How Higher Ed CIOs Can Leverage Cloud Service Providers for Strategic Gain

Principal Analyst

Top of Mind: How Higher Ed CIOs Can Leverage Cloud Service Providers for Strategic Gain
Estimated Reading Time: 4 minutes

For some time, we have been talking about the trend of developing new commercial applications almost entirely in the cloud. Companies either host their older application code in the cloud or build cloud-native SaaS applications (or both in some cases). Higher education institutions have begun migrating to these new cloud applications, as have most industries, to take advantage of new functionality, “always current” systems, and reduced technology maintenance responsibilities. As the applications we consume move to the cloud, campus CIOs need to ask themselves the following questions:

  • What does the migration of applications to the cloud mean for the rest of the infrastructure and development that remain on-premises?
  • With the focus in the tech media on the battle between cloud service providers (CSPs), AWS, Azure, Oracle Cloud Infrastructure, and Google Cloud Platform, where should higher ed CIOs and technology leaders focus their energy?

To date, we have seen CSPs employed for several purposes, including:

  • Easy-to-configure offsite storage backup and disaster recovery
  • Hosting for previously on-premises applications, mainly to avoid data center investments
  • Increased computing capabilities (e.g., artificial intelligence, machine learning, and analytics) and efficient high-performance computing, for research applications
  • PaaS offerings to advance custom development capabilities for development staff
  • Special CSP technology offerings to support academic coursework.

Where should CIOs focus their exploration of CSP adoption, and how should skills and staffing impact their approach? From current usage, we see fragmented and inconsistent use of the capabilities of these providers in all but a few cases where deep partnerships have been formed. However, if we separate the research from the administrative use cases, the trajectories look more clear moving into the future.

Research Use Cases

For research, we can expect significant movement towards CSP capabilities that eliminate the need for capital expenditures. Researchers require the advanced AI, ML, and analytical capabilities that are being rolled out very quickly by CSPs to bring new agility to the research enterprise. CSPs are also being used for high-performance computing (HPC) use cases, though physical HPC clusters will continue to be used and deployed for dedicated and state/system sharing. Over time, the long-term prospect of on-premises HPC clusters keeping up with these tech giants seems dim except for a small percentage of high-end use cases.

This situation will leave many institutions with a gap in several skill categories, such as engineering and contract and vendor management. Some institutions will lack the internal consulting capacity to assist researchers in taking advantage of these toolsets; negotiating favorable contracts, terms, and prices; and simplifying the use of these tools for the institution. Institutions do not need armies of CSP experts, but a handful of architects, engineers, and security experts to assist researchers in the adoption of the tools and reduce the risk and costs for research projects. Research institutions should be building out these small consultative teams and internal contracts and standards to help (not control) researchers.

Administrative Use Cases

Now let’s turn to administrative use. Given the limited use cases we’ve seen to date, most CIOs need to be aware of how CSPs can be useful in the short- and medium-term to reduce their reliance on data centers, while ensuring they can reap the benefits of previous data center investments. Most institutions are not planning to altogether abandon those investments for some time, but they can see the end of life for those facilities in the coming years. Planning this ramp-down of data center usage will require all the previously noted skills to execute effectively—with the addition of an opportunistic view on making moves to the cloud.

As applications move quickly to the cloud (few on-premises applications can even be purchased in 2021), many CIOs are thinking strategically about what mix of technologies they might employ going forward and what skill sets they will need to support them.

By adopting more standardized business processes, most institutions are moving away from the need for significant custom development. Instead, they are adopting more configurable SaaS applications, from enterprise-level applications to single-function products that are easily integrated to fill a functionality gap. With the maturation of both companion and standalone low code capabilities and iPaaS solutions that require less coding than ever, many institutions will not require significant custom development but will be configuring and integrating SaaS solutions to meet their institution’s administrative needs.

This shift has considerable impact on the skills that a team requires, shifting from hard technology skills to collaborative, technical and operational knowledge and skills.

Planning Your Strategy

Given these shifts, what is critical for higher ed CIOs to plan out their long-term strategy related to CSPs?

  • Support research by understanding capabilities in leading PaaS platforms. Know what your researchers need and find ways to serve them by simplifying the platform’s use.
  • Understand adjacent low code opportunities. Review the low code extension capabilities of your major SaaS application providers. Align functions to these platforms where high interaction with the core system is required.
  • Investigate Low Code/Pro Code development platforms for custom “applications.” Where standalone applications are required, look for suites where experienced developers can use low code to create sustainable, secure applications.
  • If you need a complex custom application, question why. Decompose and look for alternatives. There are few truly unique applications in the administration of higher education.

While we may have once looked to like Gartner’s Andy Kyte for wisdom on what a modern development shop should look like (i.e., Netflix), higher ed should now be looking at how not to become that shop.  Building the skills, tools, and muscle memory of a composition and consultation shop, not a development shop, can be the basis of a capable, efficient IT team that can help institutions be agile and cost-effective in supporting the institutional mission.

Share Article:

Principal Analyst
Dave Kieffer spearheads research focused on finance, and HCM applications, data management and other critical higher education technologies at Tambellini Group. He brings more than 30 years of creating, implementing, and managing enterprise-class applications in higher education. His experience includes all levels of applications development and management in higher education. Among other things, he has been responsible for ERP implementations, mobile, and web development, application architecture and integration technologies.

Other Posts From this Author:

Realize Your Institution's Goals Faster with The Tambellini Group®

Higher Education Institutions


Solution Providers & Investors

market insights

Become a Client of the Tambellini Group.

Get exclusive access to higher education analysts, rich research, premium publications, and advisory services.

Be a Top of Mind Podcast featured guest

Request a Briefing with a Tambellini Analyst

Suggest your research topics

Subscribe to Tambellini's Top of Mind.

Weekly email featuring higher education blog articles, infographics or podcasts.