It’s Getting Cloudy

Cloud is a loaded term these days. It means different things to different people; and absolutely nothing to others. For some it’s a way to access services at lower cost that’s shared across a large customer base. For others it’s a way to save on physical infrastructure and offload some portion of ongoing maintenance and support tasks. Still, for others it’s a way to hedge on massive growth without significant up-front costs. For IT it can be all of those things, and more. For IT Services, it is a growing part of our future-state strategy, and integral to how we see ourselves adding value going forward.

Of course, all of that means absolutely nothing without context. So here’s some context.

Software as a service (SaaS)

For a handful of years now, ITS and the University at large have been increasing consumers of SaaS products as a means to increase capabilities and, to varying degrees, contain costs. Things like Google Apps, Box, Salesforce, Harvest, and Workday are all great examples of the SaaS model; and one that many of us leverage on a daily basis. Some of these services and tools are being offered at the institutional level while others are procured and provided by units, departments, labs, centers, and the like. Regardless of the implementation, the potential benefits of this model — reduced cost, increased efficiency, enhanced capability — will continue to be leveraged aggressively over the next several years.

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

So if SaaS is a way to consume software through the web, PaaS is a way to run your own software without needing to worry so much about the hardware and operating system requirements. This is far less visible to most folks around campus, but it is nevertheless something IT both consumes and provides as part of our long term strategy to develop on, and for, modern technologies.

One concrete example of how we are using PaaS is the way we deliver UChicago Sites. We use Acquia, a platform provider, to host and manage our entire UChicago Sites install, which happens to support more than 400 University websites. So while you can’t see it, anyone who uses a UChicago Site is benefitting from our strategy to leverage cloud services to streamline and improve our service offerings.

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

This is the thing people most commonly associate with “Cloud.” infrastructure as a Service is essentially the provisioning of “data center” services like servers, firewalls, DNS, and other core components to allow customers to build and deliver just about anything they can dream up. Amazon Web Services (AWS), Microsoft Azure, and Google Cloud Platform are the leading examples of IaaS providers that support everything from Netflix to XBox Live to AirBnB.

IT Services use of IaaS is still in its infancy, but we are anticipating a rapid growth spurt over the next few years, given what we know of the needs and expectations of our campus community. We see — and are planning for — opportunities in application hosting, research data, computation, data storage, disaster recovery, identity management, and networking, among others.

Everything as a Service (XaaS)

With the prevalence of networks, connected devices, mobile computing, on-demand media, and the growing ubiquity of the “internet of things,” all of the flavors of “aaS” are converging into the new reality of “everything as a service,” which really just means “if you can build it, think it, design it, make it, you can probably use the internet and all its capabilities (see above) to turn it into a service that other people can consume.” Is that oversimplified? You bet. But that doesn’t make it any less real.

We are no longer consuming individual services to satisfy specific needs. We have come to a new reality where we string together disparate services and capabilities to generate new insights and satisfy interconnected requirements. And that’s not just IT; it’s everyone.

So the next time you solve a problem or complete a task, take a minute to consider how you did it. How many individual services did you leverage? How are those things now integrated into your solution? And how much of that underlying infrastructure do you take for granted as simply a part of your modern reality? If I were a betting man, I’d say “a lot.” And the reason you can afford to do that? The answer is increasingly, “because we can leverage the cloud.” And because we can, because we must … we are. And we will.

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