Tuesday Sep 17, 2013

Higher Ed ERP and Cloud

The past couple of weeks have been a relative frenzy in the ordinarily mundane world of higher ed "administrative" IT or ERP.  Most notable was the much-anticipated Workday announcement of an intention to build a SaaS Student Information System (Workday Student).  This caught almost no one by surprise given that their partner institutions are talking and their recent hires into leadership roles telegraphed this rather overtly.

The topic of Cloud and SaaS in education IT is one that I've devoted considerable air time to, both on this blog as well as in our forum with a number of global education partners (our Industry Strategy Council, or ISC, that meets twice a year).  Inevitably the conversation and discussion always seems to come back to a couple of key questions:

1) Will it lower costs?

2) Will anyone consume it if it's offered?

The attraction to SaaS applications in higher ed is almost always the allure of lowering costs associated with the acquisition, maintenance, upgrades, and management of an on-premise application.  Further, many I talk to actually admit that they'd love to use the SaaS vendors upgrade schedule (which is the upgrade schedule all of its customers will be on, like it or not) as the justification for business process standardization and implementation of strict IT governance (i.e. thou shalt not customize).  Meaning: We can't enforce the needed governance ourselves, so we need a SaaS solution to impose it on us, leveraging the justification of reduced costs.

There seems to be a perception that Oracle isn't part of the Cloud revolution in IT or has been "slow to adopt the cloud."  I am astonished by this given the facts, but perception is often reality.  But shouldn't we really be talking about, given the fundamental realities of higher ed institutions and their overall structure, SaaS is really workable in all cases?  Brian Voss in his recent blog post "On the Future of Administrative Information Technology" comments that many administrative systems in higher ed are reaching their 10 or 20 year anniversaries and that commercial vendors of IT for higher ed are discontinuing support for older products, leading to a potential wave of replacements in the coming years.  These same issues confront many commercial enterprises - what is different in my view is that higher ed has for the most part (and I am falling victim to something I generally despise - broad generalizations) been largely unable to contain costs and extract a great deal of value from admin IT because it lacks strong IT governance.   SaaS WILL NOT solve this problem.

One of the many business transformation partners that my team and I have worked with over the years is a firm called the Hackett Group.  For the winter meeting of the ISC I referenced earlier, representatives from Hackett in partnership with one of their clients (and ISC member) the University of Michigan, presented on the IT rationalization project they had embarked upon at Michigan and also generalized to the overall "world class" benchmark of higher ed vs. other commercial organizations that exhibited "world class" performance.  What was clear in nearly every category was that while higher ed overall has done a reasonable job containing costs, it still spends a preponderance of its IT resources on largely "transactional" (vs. strategic) functions - even higher in fact that what is exhibited by public sector (government) IT organizations in the US.

There is no question that the Workday announcement for a SaaS SIS will garner a lot of attention, and in fact it will have a positive impact on us as strong competition always has on the industry.  But I caution my colleagues, partners, customers, etc. not to get hung up on the shiny new object and lose sight of the real issue that has the greatest opportunity to enable higher ed organizations to realize value from strategic investments in IT: standardized infrastructure and systems simplification hold the key to IT truly becoming a strategic resource for the institution.


Friday Mar 09, 2012

Why Higher Education Needs Oracle More Than Ever

For those of you that I haven't met, I'm Cole Clark. I lead the education and research industry team for Oracle globally. I started my career after graduating from Rhodes College in 1988, working in the nascent IT organization at another university (the University of Tennessee, Memphis) to help put myself through school. I "grew up" in computing during the advent of the Macintosh, client server, the slow demise of the mainframe and the move away from centralized computing with more and more power and capability (and operating system empowerment of users) at the desk, and eventually, lap.

I eventually joined the company whose products I admired so much (Apple), then moved to Sun when in 1997 it appeared Apple would not make it (clearly got that one wrong), then to Oracle by way of its acquisition of Sun in 2010. During those almost 23 years I've watched the almost full-circle from centralized to decentralized back to centralized and now to even more centralization (shared services and cloud) in computing in higher education.

But with this movement back to centrally managed services has come an enormous cost, both in real dollars (or name your currency of choice) and in what we deliver to constituents. Sure, there's the promise of greater efficiency and data security, but with so many more players in the traditional "stack" of enterprise computing, each focusing on a specific layer (or two or three), higher education has generally amassed a collection of technologies that merely move the spaghetti that existed before in the client-server environment to the data center. Think about it - in many cases there are different (sometimes multiple!) suppliers at each layer - storage, storage management, operating system(s), virtualization system, server(s) interconnects, network, database, security and identity management, content management, portal, and various applications. And at each layer, a management interface that rarely integrates (seamlessly and elegantly) with the other layers. So we add people and process.

Virtualization has brought with it greater server utilization and efficiency, but in the place of a handful of, at times, under-utilized servers, we now have massive VM sprawl that brings with it its own set of management costs.

All of the above runs head-long into the economic crisis in education that hit in 2008 and persists today. Cloud computing and community source hold the allure of even greater efficiency and cost savings. But is this really the holy grail? As (outgoing) CSU Northridge president Jolene Koester says in her outstanding piece on university IT when confronted with the comparison of technology to a utility, "...the role of information technology in my university is far more strategic, far more ubiquitous, far more integrated into multiple business practices, and far more integral to the core university functions of teaching and learning. I no longer regard as valid the comparison of information technology to a utility." No, the answer is in my view to leave computing to organizations that are highly skilled, have thousands of use cases upon which to solve problems, and have the intellectual property under the roof to engineer these highly complex systems to work together, with a common management interface.

I recently convened the first meeting of an expanded industry strategy council for education and research at Oracle headquarters in California. I invited many institutions that were outside of our typical participants in the past: some that owned no Oracle applications and utilized solutions from competitors, some that owned little Oracle at all, some that were former Sun customers, some that are still devoted Sun customers today. What resonated with me after a day and a half of interaction and dialog was that there is a lot going on at Oracle unbeknownst to higher ed - investments in relationships and technology, but foremost, moving IT away from integrated solutions to engineered and optimized.

That's our mission in higher ed - to build highly optimized and engineered systems with less complexity and cost, leveraging those engineering assets to bleed out implementation and maintenance costs before they arrive at a college or university data center, or in the data center of some shared services hosting center.

Oracle's biggest obstacle in this quest in higher ed is, from my somewhat naive view of the world, it’s perception by some in the education community as a ‘big bad vendor’. Candidly, it's Oracle’s own fault (again from my personal perspective) that Oracle has created this persona which has contributed to the rise of community source endeavors like Kuali and Sakai. With all due respect to these groups and their cheerleaders, I don't believe they will get higher education where it needs to go. Again, community source solutions have come about partially because vendors are not satisfying the market with the correct products and partially (maybe more than partially) because Oracle is sometimes viewed as Machiavellian. Point taken. But I would encourage any of you taking the time to read this to get to know this new systems company called Oracle. No, all answers to all education computing problems are not yet in, but the key to running efficient and effective computing that provides competitive advantage and allows for keen insight from masses of data into the trends and potentially catastrophes (before they occur), lie in working with us to deploy engineered and optimized systems from us and from our partners.

Oracle has acquired Sun, and PeopleSoft, Hyperion, Siebel, Right Now and.... (the list is more than 75 companies long). We're all about the "systems-ness" of computing now. Yes, Oracle and other vendors have our faults - we're working on those and want to talk more about how we dramatically improve our relationships (hence my desire to further expand the strategy council to even more members, globally). Give us a call. In the words of one of my favorite architects on my global team, "I am listening."

Cole Clark

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Comments, news, updates and perspectives from Oracle's global vice president of the education and research industry--which includes higher education, research, and primary/secondary education (K-12) organizations worldwide.

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