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Preparing for a post-PC world?

Martin Hamilton has posted a thoughtful piece about the impact of the current IT trends away from the desktop PC and towards cloud computing.  I've been musing about how these changes might affect us as service providers.

The move towards staff and students using their own devices to access our services is well established.  We have a policy of providing services via the web whenever we can, giving people access to our services "anywhere, anytime".  The EASE system provides a single authentication point for common access and is integrated with Shibboleth as well.  There are still university systems that don't fit this model, perhaps because the vendor doesn't provide the option or because a university department has bought their own system without considering the wider picture, but we are moving in the right direction.

In some cases, the move towards outsourcing services can make this harder.  The big players all have their own authentication systems and want users to move into their world.  It isn't necessarily in the vendors' interest to have interoperable authentication, just as vendors of desktop systems before didn't necessarily want interoperable systems.  This is something we will have to keep pressing for.  Universities should keep working together on this - as we have with Shibboleth adoption.

Obviously a key aspect of the post-PC world is the expansion in the range of devices that people are using - phones, tablets, laptops, consoles, thin-clients, and so forth.  So far, we have the U@Ed service for smartphones and provide mail/diary services on phones too.  It seems to me that this is an area where we are likely to become more dependent on vendors, simply because of the support implications.  We simply can't test systems on all the different devices, with their different browsers and screen sizes, let alone different "apps". We can write systems to comply with standards, but standards are usually open to some interpretation.  If one of our systems doesn't work on a certain device, the best we can do is address problems as they arise, if we have the budget to do so.

So that's one side of the post-PC world: far fewer users using (or wanting) traditional PCs.  The other side is the use of cloud computing.  We already outsource some of our systems and we are looking at this option for others.  Some people tell us that all our services will end up being provided in the cloud.  I'm sure that many will, but it's interesting to compare this with the current situation where we procure a lot of applications to run locally.

Even though we are using more third-party systems than before (either from vendors or open-source projects), we are still asked to build local systems, or to substantially reconfigure third-party systems.  It seems that the market does not address all the needs of a complex university (or in some cases, not at an affordable price).  It will be interesting to see whether cloud-based commercial systems will address more of our needs, or whether the scale required will mean even more space for local niche applications.

Basically, when it comes to providing services, we are cloud providers, as far as our users are concerned.   They connect to our services via the web just as they do with commercial services such as Google or Microsoft.  In some cases, we know that we can provide these services cheaper than the commercial options.  So our decision will be whether to run our "cloud" services in-house, to outsource them (while still branding them as university services), or to stop providing them and let our staff and students use the commercial ones.  Factors affecting this will include data protection considerations, freedom of information obligations, branding, consistency of user experience, support for multiple devices, and of course cost.

Martin's post:


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