IT in higher education is
often always asked to do more with less. That’s doubly true at the departmental or college level, outside of the typically better-funded centralized IT organizations. I’ve worked in both, and while today I sometimes feel like I’m asked to deliver enterprise solutions on a small business budget, in the past it seemed like we had the budget to pay for hardware and software, but not necessarily enough people to properly maintain it.
Something that has become very appealing to the education market are cloud services offered either on a free or no additional cost basis. Cloud Storage is one service that sounds almost too good to be true, especially when I think about how much the giant NetApp filers we bought a few years ago cost, and how a large portion of them is used to deliver SMB file shares to users on campus with a quota of “only” 50GB.
When free may really be free
Google Apps was recently rolled out to our campus. I’m not in a position to speak the service with 100% certainty, but based on discussions we had a few years ago in central IT and on what I’ve read about concerning other colleges and universities, I figure there’s a good chance that UT isn’t paying Google anything for “Google Apps for Education.” Students can make use of nearly the full suite of apps from Google, including Gmail, whereas faculty & staff can use all of them except for Gmail.
Google Drive is the service that many people were excited about having access to. White it was originally described as providing 30GB of space, Google has since announced it will provide unlimited storage to Google Apps for Education users. I’m sure this was in response to Microsoft offering 1TB of storage to OneDrive for Business users.
When free really isn’t
Office 365 was recently rolled out on campus as well. Students have the option of using Office 365 for email, and over the next year, faculty and staff will do so as well. We’re also all using Lync Online now, and have access to SharePoint Online, Office Web Apps, and OneDrive for Business.
Office 365 is anything but free, although I’m sure Microsoft would like for us to think of most of the services as being provided at “no additional cost.” Still, I know what we were paying for our Campus Agreement a few years back, and I know the annual cost hasn’t gone down, so while OneDrive for Business may not be broken out as a separate line item, it certainly costs the university something.
OneDrive for Business originally offered education users either 25GB or 50GB, but was upgraded to 1TB a few months ago. Evidently Microsoft was not to be outdone by Google, because it too now offers unlimited storage. Whether or not a user can actually use all that space is another matter, of course.
So what’s wrong with free or kinda free?
I have no problem with free or pseudo-free services. I use quite a few of them every day, including Dropbox, Twitter, and more. But in the case of Google Apps for Education or Office 365, the phrase, “you get what you pay for” can be painfully true. As long as Google Drive or OneDrive for Business work well, people are happy. But the simple truth is, free services aren’t as well supported as paid services. If a user on campus loses a file on the campus T-Storage SMB file share service, both the HelpDesk and the central Systems group can and will do whatever they can to recover the file. Lose a file on Google Drive, as a user from our College of Veterinary Medicine recently did, and there may be nothing the HelpDesk can do for you. Both Google Apps and Office 365 have been described as services that are supported at a “best effort” level. In practice, that typically means helping users install or uninstall the clients, start and restart services, and perform other basic troubleshooting steps. But at the end of the day, central IT doesn’t run Google Drive or OneDrive for Business, so there is only so much they can do about it if something goes wrong.
What do our users think about this?
I just don’t know. I know they see these cloud services offered in official emails by IT, and they’re told to contact the HelpDesk if they have any questions or need help setting them up. I also know that if they have a serious problem with them, and they reach the limit of “best effort” support, they get really frustrated, and I don’t blame them. Those of us in IT may understand that these “free” cloud services come with lots of caveats, but I don’t expect an average user to do so.
Where do we go from here?
In a perfect world, we would only use services we pay for, as a separate item, not something tossed in at “no additional cost” like OneDrive for Business is on our Campus Agreement. We’d pay for those services, and get an enforceable SLA, and get vendor-based support that could be held accountable when something doesn’t work as it should. I don’t get the sense that we have that for either of the cloud storage products we’re using. I believe we’d get it with Citrix ShareFile, Dropbox for Business, or Box.net, and possibly others. Unfortunately, discussions of those products usually end as soon as the cost is estimated. But you get what you pay for…
This is post 16 in the #NaBloWriMo #vDM30in30 30 Day Blog Challenge