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In conversation with Matt Avery and Paul Scott... Cloud – what is the cost of delay?

As part of our annual Empower Online: Higher Education Conference, Tribal’s Higher Education Sales Manager, Matt Avery talked to Cloud Pre-Sales Technical Consultant, Paul Scott to discuss the journey to cloud and what considerations should be made, including understanding the potential cost of delay.

MA: Can you give us some insight into what we're seeing with our customers in terms of drivers as to why they should move to the cloud?

PS: In terms of drivers, there's four areas that are coming out as common themes when people are considering moving towards cloud. The first is security. It ranges from becoming compliant with ever more complex security standards, all the way up to being able to protect against evermore coming attacks, cyber-attacks. The SaaS model of cloud delivery

gives the opportunity to redesign the security approach for systems and make use of the very sophisticated protections offered by cloud vendors. They can afford vast security teams to design systems which can withstand the constant attack they're under.

MA: I saw a stat the other day, the average cost of a cyber-attack on a university is £2.9 million. Is that right?

PS: Yes, if they're successful. Unfortunately, with on premise systems, they tend to be more successful than with cloud systems.

MA: So, it’s important your skills keep up with the increased sophistication of these attackers?

PS: Yes, that’s correct, you're always in a technological arms race with the hackers. Universities are now seen as big businesses. There's a large cash turnover and an absolute reliance on data. So, you absolutely need to protect that data. It's the hacker’s job to see you as a cash cow and see what they can get out of it.

MA: OK, you said there were four areas, what are the next three?

PS: The next one is geared around people, operational agility. It's being able to redirect your technical team to look more at innovation and business process improvement rather than spending time checking servers’ storage, maintaining updates, the so called ‘keeping the lights on the system’. Moving to a cloud-based SaaS model of software delivery can really help with that. It gives the tech teams more opportunities for training and going out and discovering new technologies, it helps keep their skills fresh too, and this can give universities a real edge when it comes to agility. It means you can evaluate and introduce new technologies much more quickly because your technical staff have got more time and more up-to-date skills.

MA: So, it's about freeing up that time to focus on innovation for the university and for the users, for the staff, for the students, rather than the traditional ‘keeping the lights on’ model?

PS: Yes, absolutely. Rather than checking to see when servers need to be updated, you've got your software vendor doing that for you and your staff can be concentrating on supporting students.

The third area is critical and becoming more important, it's availability guarantees. Students and to a large extent, staff, demand access to the technology 24/7. If you're running your SIS on site, you're completely responsible for that system’s availability and there's no hard and fast guarantees. It's whatever your team can do and whatever your hardware can support, and it's really hard to plan for every eventuality.

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If you have a hardware failure, what do you do? If there's a power outage which effects an entire building, what do you do? And then of course, there's the risk of a cyber-attack bringing down the entire system.

Again, moving to a SaaS model gives you peace of mind and a guaranteed level of service, and of course, leading edge security so you can be confident that your system will be available whenever it's needed.

MA: I think that's interesting, certainly one of the key patterns in the conversations that I've had is around, can you keep up with the increasing demands of users of the system? My personal view is that everything happening at a consumer level, (such as Netflix) is instantly available and provides an excellent experience that creates the perception that everything should be like that.

It only enhances that perception or that drive behind the constantly increasing and spiralling demands of the users, would you say that's a fair observation?

PS: Yes, that’s true. If you go back what 20 years, people were accessing the student record system probably from a fixed PC, maybe from a laptop, and then wireless freed people up from those wired connections. Now everybody, every single student, every member of staff, has got a computer in terms of their mobile phone. They've got access to the internet wherever they are, whenever they are, whether they're at home, whether they're at university on campus or away from campus. That availability needs to reflect their demands to have instant access to their information.

MA: Yeah, they want information at their fingertips. For instance, if you're in a debate with someone at the pub, you ‘just Google it’.

So, what would be your last point?

PS: The final point links back to the operational agility we mentioned earlier and that's the ability to implement change. As we've seen over the past 18 months, Covid's brought a whole host of unexpected challenges. The lucky universities have been able to keep everything working without people going on site. But if your system was already in the cloud, that wouldn't have been an issue in any way, shape or form as our cloud customers have found. Plus, your ability to react quickly to the changes is dramatically improved if you've already started your journey to the cloud.

MA: I guess it's the fact that COVID was a change that no one controlled, right? It was a macro change that affected basically the whole world and suddenly the implications, depending on what industry, depending on where you are, have to react to those changes.

Can you set yourself up to be in a position that if something like COVID came along again, would you be confident in your ability to react?

So, a lot of our customers are probably looking at digital transformation, cloud first strategies for their systems; what options would be available for addressing some of those challenges we’ve just discussed?

PS: Well, there's a few which we see and the first which springs to mind is just to leave things as they are and do nothing, continue running your SIS on-premises. You might be happy with the levels of performance and the availability offered by your current circumstances and that's fine if you are, but it is going to be tricky to realise the benefits we've mentioned earlier without some changes. Plus, bear in mind that your competitors are likely to be pushing ahead with the cloud first strategy, which may give them a competitive edge, and it's important to appreciate the frequency and sophistication of cyberattacks is increasing and so remaining on premise doesn't mean you can stand

Still. In order to maintain data security system integrity, you're going to have to engage in an arms race to protect your network.

From an IT perspective, you're pushing the problem away but in time, you're going to have to confront it.

The next option we are currently seeing is customers looking to move to the cloud using a method called ‘Lift and Shift’. That's taking the student information system from its current on premises hardware and moving it to the cloud pretty much as is, either universities doing it themselves with their own technical team or with a migration partner. This potentially gives them the opportunity to redesign some of the security, especially with the migration partner aspect and it gets the record system off the on-premises hardware, but it probably won't free up anytime as the solution is still very technically focused and still needs to be managed and updated by the on-premises team and the result will probably be business as usual from a business process perspective. It's not going to offer much in terms of improvement to business process or user outcomes, it's not going to free up any staff time.

MA: I've certainly heard this discussed and debated.

PS: You don’t want to solely rely on the technical skills of your existing team, they might be fantastic but they're probably going to be learning a new technology. A SIS is an absolutely critical system which is very sensitive to changes in environment and so moving it to the cloud does take very careful planning of the underlying technology which it needs to run on.

Tribal has an offering called SITS Cloud. We take the student information system and present it as a service run from the cloud. That means that Tribal takes over the day-to-day maintenance, all the updates, the upgrades, etc. We also re-engineer the architecture lying underneath SITS to make it more secure, more scalable, and probably performing better in the cloud than it would do on premises.

This allows us to offer SITS as a software as a service so we manage it all for you and after all we wrote it, there's nothing we don't know how to get the best from it and we can develop it in ways which support new ways of working as well, with the added advantage of bringing your existing configuration along so your business configuration says all of your existing config comes with it, so there's no major changes for your and staff and students.

We can also advise on how to bring those processes in line with current best practice too.

MA: What would you say the urgency is to act here?

PS: I would probably say there is a degree of urgency, so again, given the increasing complexity of systems and the increasing user demands, your student body are not going to become relaxed about your inability to deliver these things. The increasing skills of hackers

we've mentioned versus the ability of your technical teams to keep up, as you mentioned that the average cost of a hack is close to £3 million. Every day you're potentially exposed to another risk and there's no time like the present for institutions.

Most universities have already got a cloud first policy and will have started moving some of their ancillary systems into the cloud already, the more of those that are in the cloud, the more pressing it gets to move your student record system in the same way, it's like an acknowledged logical step to.

Eventually, everybody will have their SIS in the cloud.

The essential first steps in your cloud action plan