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SaaS successes propel cloud-first philosophy at University of Miami

After finding success with cloud-based IT Service Management, the University of Miami is emboldened to carry out a cloud-first approach to IT needs.

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In the first part of this SearchCIO Innovators Q&A, University of Miami Deputy CIO Brad Rohrer talked about the move to a centralized IT department with the help of a cloud-based IT services management tool. On the heels of that organizational transformation, IT is evaluating a cloud-first approach for many of its major systems, from ERP and email to the infrastructure for managing research grants to virtualizing its slew of desktops.

In this second half, Rohrer provides some details on where U of Miami's cloud-first philosophy will take them next, what recent cloud-related changes mean for the people involved and when cloud-first simply doesn't fly.

Brad RohrerBrad Rohrer

Why cloud-first for these major systems and how are those projects progressing?

Brad Rohrer: We have a cloud-first philosophy because it helps us bring things to our very diverse set of users quicker. We're moving ahead with Microsoft Office 365: We've got all of our students on Office 365 email; faculty and staff are migrating before June 1. Keep in mind, the University of Miami does email for life, so we have email boxes for everybody. I believe about 21,000 mailboxes have been migrated already … and there are maybe 19,000 that we still have to migrate. The faculty email is a little more complicated because we've got to migrate not just email but to think about folders – moving to, say, SkyDrive Pro -- and about departmental information going into SharePoint, which is all part of the Office 365 offering. So, we're getting into the more complicated part of this now. But it's going to be a much more easily managed platform, and I think a much better platform, ultimately, for the users, to have it available on the Web and not hosted.

I feel that [cloud providers] are very motivated to make you happy, because they have to basically continue to sell you this product to keep you as a customer. I think that's a good thing for somebody in my position.

Brad Rohrer,
deputy CIO, University of Miami

Our student ERP system we moved to Campus Solutions from Oracle. Right now they're hosting that for us. Depending on your definition of cloud, it's 'cloud-like,' but it's not shared. The others -- HR, financials-- we've gone with Workday. We're very enthusiastic about the Workday platform: It's the next generation of ERP; it's very in-line with what we're trying to do with getting to a more bring-your-own-device-centric kind of world, where you could be the vice president of HR and do your work on your iPhone as well as you could at a regular workstation.

And for your research folks? How's the cloud helping with their work?

The ability to be more agile to service research is always a challenge, because they don't plan for that like a business. Some neat ways we're kicking around what we can do with certain vendors for Infrastructure as a Service, is to have something kind of boilerplate-ready for researchers. They have this pre-grant process, where they've asked for a certain amount of money on the front end of the grant; we'll have something ready for them that's secured correctly, and we can spin it up as soon as they have their grant application accepted. That's a very important thing for us, and that's something we're working with quite a few vendors on possibly doing.

And we're looking at cloud for virtual desktop and getting rid of a good portion of the student labs … so students can use applications and do their work anytime from anywhere.

You have a strong working relationship with ServiceNow. How do you ensure a good relationship with a cloud provider?

Rohrer: Relationships in general with partners in IT are as much dependent on the people as they are on the product. Now that we're dealing with more vendor partners that offer us services rather than just acquisition of capital that we run for ourselves on our infrastructure, relationships have changed. When there's a monthly payment or subscription on the line, I feel that they're very motivated to make you happy, because they have to basically continue to sell you this product to keep you as a customer. I think that's a good thing for somebody in my position.

All too often, historically, we make capital investments; we look at technology that has a four-to-six-year useful life if we're lucky. And depending on the type of technology we don't see anybody for four to six years. This is just a different model, and that's the benefit.

Everybody says the risk is that if you make the wrong choice, you end up having to go through this change over and over, which is much more pervasive a change than if you were to change from one storage area network to another, technology-wise. But I haven't experienced the downside.

How is this cloud-first philosophy changing the makeup of your IT organization?

Rohrer: A lot of the folks in the infrastructure side of the business, I think, are very apprehensive simply because they see the skill sets that they hold near and dear to their hearts diminish and the interest they have in putting boxes in racks and watching lights blink -- there's less of that. The people on the IT staff now who are on the infrastructure team, the ones that are able to understand the technology well enough and have the capacity to understand the business that they're serving, are the ones who are going to be benefiting greatly from this model in the future. That's because they're going to understand the technology well enough to make an educated choice when it comes to service providers, and they're going to understand the business unit well enough to know how best to configure that offering for the University of Miami.

Is there any time when you wouldn't look to the cloud first for a solution?

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Rohrer: I don't think there's anything necessarily we wouldn't consider it for. We're a university, right? We're focused on teaching and learning, ultimately, and we've got a big health center attached to us, and we're focused there on clinical care and services. The thing that's not in our wheelhouse -- the thing that's not a focus for the University or part of our mission -- is just 'doing IT.' So we've got to be accepting of that and really go and look for cloud solutions for anything that gets handed to us.

What quickly rules cloud out in a lot of cases is if compliance standards can't be met. If a cloud provider can't sign the business associate agreement that's required, for example, for sensitive data, whether it's HIPAA or student information, that rules out cloud. But we're finding that more service providers are getting wise to the fact that organizations like ours can't do business unless they're willing to commit to a contractual obligation to protect our data. And that's not really as big a roadblock as it used to be even six months ago. That's changing rapidly. There are a lot more who are willing to share the risk there.

The other thing that rules out cloud services from time to time is if we find one that's great technically, but not competitively priced. At the end of the day, we're still a higher education organization; we can't spend twice as much to go to the cloud as we would if hosted it ourselves.

But we always ask ourselves, 'Can we go to the cloud first with a service? And if we can't go to the cloud can we virtualize it?' Because the last thing we want to do is land more hardware in data centers.

This was first published in December 2013

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