Q and A with Dwight Fischer
Dal's CIO discusses the implications of cloud computing
Ryan McNutt - March 9, 2011
Following our Dal News story on the possibilities for cloud computing—data and software outsourced to a third-party and accessed via the Internet—we sat down for an in-depth interview with Dwight Fischer, Dalhousie’s chief information officer and assistant vice-president of Information Technology Services, to discuss the future of computing systems at Dalhousie.
So let’s start with a simple one: why this conversation, and why now?
There’s a strong sentiment on campus that the current suite of tools we offer is inadequate, and it’s clear that our systems were not designed for the load they’re seeing. We really hear it from people who are newer to campus. They immediately notice issues at the interface level, with the limited capacity and the lack of integration with calendar, mobile tools. They see how difficult it is to self-manage.
The tools available to individuals in their personal lives, as well as people’s expectations for what the university should offer to support their work and study, are changing fast. We at ITS simply cannot keep up with the pace of change in this segment. So we’re asking “why?”
Additionally, mobile devices are changing how we work. Our current systems and tools were designed for a desktop, yet they’re now deluged with an influx of smartphones, laptops and tablets. Calendar integration, online collaboration, network file sharing on the go...our current slate of tools were simply not designed to accommodate this.
So it’s the right time to ask strategic questions about information technology services at Dalhousie. What do we need to provide our users to work effectively and collaborate? What tools should we support, and which can be supported by an outside provider? Where do we best apply our resources efficiently and effectively?
So we’re talking about things like e-mail, calendar services...
... document sharing, collaboration tools, the works. These tools are used in different ways by students, faculty and staff, but they’re all important to how people work today. But more importantly, it is the new web 2.0 tools that people need: high capacity document storage for access from anywhere, any device; the ability to work collaboratively with someone on a document or presentation; and much more.
You’ve asked the question whether the university should be providing e-mail services.
Right. Obviously, dal.ca email accounts are extremely important to faculty, staff, and a great deal of our students and alumni. Yet these tools have become commoditized by the big players. We need to ask ourselves, in light of so many other IT demands, should we be committing our best and brightest IT staff to trying to compete with these services or do we want them working on more value-added activities? I’d like us to shift these experts to provide better technology support and innovation to teaching, learning and research; or improved data management and services; or to working with partners to improve our communications within and to the outside world.
Our core business is not providing email or storage capacity. We’ll never be able to keep pace with the rate of development from the available service providers out there. Plus, companies like Microsoft and Google are offering these services to universities for free, with storage capacities far beyond what we could affordably offer.
Universities providing mail and calendar systems is like manufacturing companies generating their own electricity in the early 1900s. It was necessary for a while, but only until the electrical grid expanded and made that service available at an affordable rate.
The question I keep coming back to is this: Where do we want our IT expertise and resources focused?
But I’m sure these companies aren’t offering these services for free out of altruism.
Of course not. Both Google and Microsoft have different business models, but they’re predicated on a similar marketing concept. They’re willing to give some of their products away to get more attention for their core business: search for Google, customers-for-life for Microsoft. Both offer variants of their commercial tools to higher education with no advertising or data mining. They offer the services to schools with their same domain (firstname.lastname@example.org) with all the innovation and new products they continuously bring to market. Imagine, if you will, we could offer a suite of tools that are on the leading edge of innovation.
A recurring theme in some of the comments on the last Dal News story—one that’s common in this debate over ‘cloud computing’—is a focus on privacy issues. Some people are concerned by the security and privacy implications of hosting our data outside of the university, and in the United States in particular.
We are very conscious of the privacy issues. That said, we need to look at the issue objectively. Simply dismissing cloud computing is not the answer..
Yes, Google and Microsoft services are hosted on servers that are hosted outside of Canada; in fact, on servers spread out around the world. Being U.S. companies, they operate under the jurisdiction of U.S. law, including the U.S. Patriot Act. If the U.S. government wants to access those systems, they have legal avenues to do this. Yet so, too, does the Canadian government. Canada’s Anti-Terrorist Act of 2001 also provides similar provisions. The fact is, if either government wants to access information, they can. And they work together to accomplish it.
So let’s start with that as a premise. Email, wherever it is hosted, has limits to privacy, whether hosted at Dalhousie, in Canada or in the US. That changes the conversation. If you live and work online, you have a high degree of privacy, but not an absolute right nor the entitlement. That’s just a given in this day and age.
With that in mind, we can now ask ourselves what are the best tools we need to communicate and collaborate? What tools will allow us to work from anywhere, any device? Which services will offer us the most capacity? What services offer the best degree of security and privacy, along with access and integration from a plethora of mobile devices and work modes?
But there still remains a number of people who are skeptical of these services.
Fair enough, but I think it’s a vocal minority. The fact is, many are already using these services. It represents a real shift is in how people use their information. We’re sending data to Blackberries and iPhones, conducting our business on them as much as we are at our desks. We’re using laptops connected in coffee shops and public wireless networks, where you can never quite be sure how good the security is. And we’ve got over 4,000 students, faculty and staff who forward their dal.ca e-mails to another account like Gmail or Hotmail, and that number represents only those who use our systems to do so.
For most, convenience is trumping concerns about privacy, and that’s borne out by the way people communicate. Most people just don’t see their day-to-day work as “private,” at least not in a sense that they’re concerned about using iPhones or email as part of how they work.
I speak with a lot of students about this issue. Many wonder why we’re making such a fuss. Others encourage us to hurry up. There are always some that raise the issues of privacy and selling out to the corporate world. Yet when we ask them if they use Facebook, Hotmail or Gmail, they usually answer yes.
Tomorrow, we continue our conversation with Mr. Fischer, talking more about privacy—including government legislation—and watching what’s happening at other universities.