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Here a Cloud, There a Cloud, Everywhere a Cloud

Evaluating software to support administrative systems is becoming more difficult as the definition of cloud and SaaS are not used consistently by the vendors. Many times traditional hosting is now a Cloud or SssS solution. Although hosting is a valid option, it is not a SaaS solution. Buyers need to continue to focus on their business needs and technical deployment options, but they need to ensure they go beyond the marketing terms and understand the pros and cons of a vendor’s implementation options.

There have been a number of recent discussions about the use of the cloud and the definition of the cloud. Many of these discussions are centered on learning platforms, but I wanted to look at it from administrative system. In his post Why ED Tech Innovation is Speeding Up, Michael Feldstein identified cloud technologies as one of the factors speeding ED Tech innovation:

Software isn’t the only thing that has commoditized. One useful way of thinking about the cloud is as the commoditization of hardware. (Importantly for ed tech, this is definitely not the only useful way of thinking about it, but that’s another post for another time.) It’s now easy for companies to get very cheap access to computing power and storage, and to scale that access—and its cost—just-in-time in response to demand.

Michael went on to identify the impact to existing vendors:

The degree to which existing market entrants can beat back new entrants will depend, in part, on their ability to embrace these innovations. It is simply a lot cheaper and quicker for a new market entrant to build a competitive, full-featured product than it used to be. That isn’t necessarily going to be easy for them.

The impact on Ed Tech vendors has been dramatic with new solutions and approaches appearing on a regular basis. Unfortunately in the student, finance, and HR systems, there has not been the scale or speed of change. In fact, in many ways the market seems stagnant with vendors providing marginal improvements. In a previous blog post, SaaS Changes to Higher Ed ERP Market, I suggested:

Although the vendors will have challenges converting to a SaaS solution, there are a growing number of vendors providing SaaS solutions to help institutions become agile and implement solutions focused on today’s problems. These solutions are not looking to replace the ERP, but to replace components or provide additional value in addition to the ERP.

As with Ed Tech, the existing vendors will have difficulty transitioning their platforms to effectively utilize Cloud technology. Regardless, of their capabilities, the terms Cloud and SaaS are making it into their marketing materials. In reality, they are only renaming their existing approaches like Hosting or ASP. The result is a confusing situation where the customer must take particular care in evaluating their options. In his Clarification on Cloud, SaaS, and Multi-tenant Language post, Phil Hill clarified the distinction between cloud, SaaS, and Virtualization as he discussed Desire2Learn’s cloud approach:

When I talk about cloud-based platforms, I am specifically referring to platforms that are both SaaS (automatically provisioned, available as an as-needed subscription) and multi-tenant. Virtualization is a fine strategy for scaling and managing enterprise applications, but it is not the same thing as multi-tenancy.

Each vendor may put their own spin or definition to their cloud services. Philip Wainwright provided a very good summary of the impact of the immature cloud market in his his Multi-tenancy: Are they selling you a pup?:

Ultimately, you shouldn’t have to ask about multi-tenancy when evaluating a cloud application or service because it will just be there in the infrastructure. But until we reach that level of cloud maturity, buyers of enterprise applications must be ready to evaluate the multi-tenant credentials of vendors as part of their due diligence. If a cloud application provider has single-tenant components in its infrastructure as a hangover from a previous architecture, it’s likely that choice has been made because of its history, rather than after a full evaluation of the economic, performance and change management implications for the cloud service. What really matters is whether the cloud provider offers economical operation, rapid innovation and competitive operational performance. Providers will be judged on their track record. Until they’ve established that track record, it’s a case of caveat emptor; buyers must make their own judgement.

Knowing the existing vendors are slowly utilizing the capabilities of the cloud, but quickly proclaiming they are using the cloud, the way to protect yourself is to ensure a disciplined evaluation based on needs. As in previous software selections, the keys are understanding:

  • The organization’s needs
  • The operational and technical objectives and constraints
  • The architecture of the solution

Capturing the success and innovation Ed Tech is seeing is possible, but it starts with a clear understanding of what cloud you are on.

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