Dark clouds ahead?

Dark cloudsI have been considering the issues of betting the future or your organisation on a commoditized cloud based-approach.

I’ve tweeted many times about the benefits of cloud and how were exploring those at the OU. It’s always interesting though when things come along that wake you up to some obvious dangers.

Organisations lose their autonomy and right of decision making when moving to cloud providers.

Take for example the cull of Ubertwitter, this article by Dave Winer sums it up nicely. In it he says…

“They [twitter] sent two wakeup calls to their users:

1. Hey it would be safer to use our client to access Twitter.

2. We will kill your use of Twitter if it suits us. “

Why is it important? – Well taking the control of your users outside of a carefully crafted institutional environment and leaving it in the hands of a for profit commercial organisation does bring risks and one of those is that they have the power to decide how and which users access their site. You only have to look at the Google censorship row in China to see that big organisations can cause big problems for governments, that in itself can cause problems for organisations who rely on those services to reach learners in countries such as China.

As well as institutional loss of control there are also individual loss of control issues with cloud. Summed up by Richard Stallman with regard to Chrome OS (again I’ve blogged about this being potentially very powerful in past posts). Another post by John Honeyball talks about the “thorough data rogering” of Twitter and the fact that some cloud providers are still not giving guarantees about where data is being held.

Imagine how embarrassing and difficult it would be for example if an organisation had recommended UberTwitter to it’s clients (learners) and then found them cast adrift (and perhaps unaware of being adrift). I’m most concerned though that to work in a loosely-coupled distributed way organisations must take a significant risk over ceding the right of access, delivery and protection of information for their community. If you get into bed with one of the big providers and then they piss off a country you lose a potentially huge market and also remove access to anyone currently studying from there. It’s a risk.

Outsourcing Mega-Deal

Due to the current economic climate and the need for belt tightening in the public sector many organisations are now exploring various forms of outsourcing to try and ‘reduce costs whilst still maintaining services’. Hmmm. The latest one that I’ve heard of is Suffolk County Council who are doing this wholesale to a single outsourcing supplier as a “megadeal” – There’s an article in Computing Magazine about this. There are many other articles about this and the common theme seems to be outsourcing is more likely to be a consideration during recession.

I have however read many articles which say there are risks with outsourcing within the public sector, and I know these from my own experiences and those of my colleagues, the main risk being outsourcing can be beneficial in the short term but have negative impacts in the longer term because you lose skills internally which you may need down the line. However more outsourcing and shared solutions within the public sector is inevitable, and I think healthy. We are moving to a more commoditised view of services and therefore we should all be looking to move ‘up the value chain’ and deliver at the level that is most appropriate.

For example why are Universities investing in infrastructure and IT Support, in management of those services and in server rooms and hardware and system software when these things can all be bought off the shelf through a IaaS, SaaS and PaaS providers like Amazon?

The question senior management should ask is where is the right balance? – We have had fifteen years at least of commercial vendors such as Microsoft and Sun creating products for the educational market with mixed success however the landscape is changing and products like Blackboard and Moodle are now fully featured, mature and relatively low cost options compared to creating bespoke environments. The amount of customisation varies, blackboard is more of a “blackbox” solution, allowing the value to be added through the way it is used, whereas Moodle allows for more customisation at lower levels which can be powerful but also costly.

But the models aren’t just limited to LMS. Outsourcing could apply to the course (module) materials, and in fact to the assessment services and assessment of courses. If you go down this route you get more into the realms of the ‘for profit’ organisations like Kaplan and you then do look at the bottom line all the time in assessing your curriculum. I’m not sure that’s always a healthy way to be but there is a need for Kaplan, just as there is a need for open and free educational resources.

Each organisation has to assess the level of outsourcing and how the quality and values of that organisation work within the proposed model. If you add value through the richness of the engagement with students and that requires specific adaptations then you must either have environments which allow that customisation, or work with partners who can understand your organisations needs and allow you to have control of the quality assurance.

Chief Information Officer

We’re currently recruiting a brand new CIO post for the Open University. This is a major leap forward in thinking at the OU and the emphasis of the post is to provide the cohesion between the technology areas of the orgnisation and to manage the complexity to meet business needs (my interpretation – the recruitment agency use much longer more business savvy words)

Historically the OU has been like many other universities and has had ‘ogranic growth’ of information services with a number of faculties leading the way and then some of the technologies getting adopted more widely and then becoming part of a centrally run service, some services from the central support units also get used more widely and some student technologies  get adopted by staff so there are many different technologies and service in place at any one time.

In the recent past there has been a push to centralisation and control and AACS (the Academic and Administrative Computing Service) at the OU has had a difficult job of managing that without having any direct authority to remove other services in place in other parts of the University. AACS also started out as supporting just the admin services with the academic services within another unit. The expanding to support academic systems has also not been without problems. AACS haven’t had influence (or sometimes awareness) over what other units develop for themselves and so there is a multitude of systems with overlapping or duplicated functionality.

The issues always tend to end up as a tension between providing a balance between control (security) and access (openness).  We generally want openness in our services to students, with ‘widening participation’, ‘freemium’ and ‘OER’ being the flavours of the day. We generally need tight control and security of our administrative services and our business critical systems to ensure that we can guarantee business continuity.

There’s also a need to ‘move up the value chain’ and leave the low level service provision to others. The ideas of commoditization and the consuming and adapting rather than building it all ourselves approach of the past and the move to the cloud… (I’m simplifying here but Simon Wardley explains it better than I can)

The answer seems to be the creation of a post which sits at a very high level and is seen (at least theoretically) to be above any single technology area – to be a director of information services and a broker between the different parts. It’s also someone who reports to our ‘Vice Chancellors Executive’ so therefore someone who can explain strategy and can push back at some of the views in order to build a service that meets the future needs of the University.

I think this is a very positive step for the orgnisation. The post is not only to align development but also to think about agile approaches to delivery and to manage a path to facilitate growth of services from research through to operational (where appropriate), from single unit to multi unit to enterprise, from centrally through to distributed, to facilitate cloud-based or shared solutions. It’s to act as the business architect. A role sorely needed.

Gagging Order, Google et al

I’ve been under what feels like a gagging order for the past twelve months as I’ve been part of a small team at the Open University evaluating Google Apps for Education versus Microsoft Live at Edu as the replacement to OpenText FirstClass system for email and also to provide other services to enhance the OU student experience (eProtfolios being one in particular that the OU would like to examine to see if Google can provide a suitable replacement to the current in-house solution called MyStuff).

This has been a very interesting project for me and I visited Google HQ in London earlier in the year and also went around to various places, including the University of Westminster to check out their use of Google tools. I also visited places that have taken the Microsoft tools route and I visited Microsoft HQ last year too, in both cases the overwhelming majority of the institutions are pleased with the results they have received by moving to a cloud provider and adopting more of a CLE rather than VLE (despite the odd niggling issue). I have to say though that, and this I hope is no disrespect to other UK Universities, they are coming from a place much lower on the curve then the OU when exploring “Virtual Campus” solutions. Most of them have Web CT, Blackboard or in a number of cases POP mail accounts as their VLE equivalent. These places gain a lot in a short time by moving to Google or Microsoft.

The OU is in a different position and so it was a big responsibility to make the decision we thought was the correct one to move the OU forward, I felt especially responsible since when I worked in the Technology faculty in the 1990’s we (the EMERG team) introduced FirstClass to the OU and through T171 with John Naughton, Martin Weller and Gary Alexander made it a core component  in online courses. It was a rich environment compared to the equivalent at the time (and remember this was Windows 3.1 era whereVAX mail and CoSy were around as competitors so it really was giving a whole new set of services to the student with it’s rich conferencing experience).

The upshot is that the Open University has picked Google as the provider of choice. Everyone and his dog is blogging about it but some interesting ones are Niall Sclater (who managed the evaluation process) and Tony Hirst who is starting to think about how these tools may be used.

I’m extremely pleased for three reasons, none are to do with Google being “better” then Microsoft by the way as I think it was really a close thing. They are:-

1. I can finally talk about the things I’ve been doing for the past year and not have NDA’s or confidentiality agreements to worry about, so the future is bright and I can discuss the potentials of the ‘next wave’ of technologies without having a gagging order placed on me.

2. We can start planning on how internal v external works for the organisation; we can explore and exploit the benefits of distributed, cloud and share services solutions.

3. I feel like I can start blogging again properly about techy stuff as I’m a nerd. I had considered setting up an anonymous blog or an internal blog (i.e. a blog to self) to keep track of all my doings  but neither of these seems satisfactory. I like to link to others posts and debate with colleagues online (and offline) so those things seem like anti-blogging to me.

…Never mind Happy New Year, it’s happy new era.

Switching to Cloud Computing

There has been a lot of talk recently about the cloud computing phenomenon and I’ve been pondering moving to a more cloud based working environment for a while but as I largely work on one machine for work stuff I didn’t really have the urge to move as much as other more roaming buddies such as Martin Weller who switched to using Google quite a while ago. I’d also like to retain the feel of my current set-up as I’ve got lots of stored stuff in my Archive folders on Outlook (which I use Google Desktop to index and serch through).

To cut a long story short it has been a quiet week for me (relatively speaking) and so I’ve been exploring Microsoft’s cloud computing services (live@edu in particular) and Google cloud computing apps. I’ve begun using Googledocs in earnest to manage collaborative publishing on a number of documents and I have now organised getting my Google calendar syncing with Outlook/Exchange. Originally I tried Googles own Calendar sync program which is quite flakey and then I switched to “SyncMyCal” which I found to be a bit more robust and functionally rich but of course you pay for it if you want the full bundle.

Once I’d sorted out calendaring I moved to email and got Outlook to display my googlemail account using the imap folders view. I set the google account to be the default and I checked what happened with meeting scheduling messages when opened in my google imap account in Outlook and they do go into my work calendar which is cool. I don’t like the way Outlook fixes the folder view since the google account is bottom of the list but I can live with that I guess. I ensured that the reply address for messages from my google account go to my OU account and then I changed the MX records so that the primary inbound mailbox will be directed to my google mail account.

 I’ve also in parallel created a live@edu mail domain and created a user account for myself on that and I’m going to try it next once I’ve given the Google toolkit a good testing. I’m looking forward to seeing how integrated I can make everything, especially as I’m syncing to mobile devices too (N95 and iTouch).

So now the test begins!