Blackboard in the Cloud
This post is part of our ongoing Blackboard Week.
There’s plenty of hype about “cloud” software these days. Many engineers argue back and forth about the benefits of developing software in the Cloud. In many ways, cloud software is nothing new. In other ways, it’s groundbreaking and an amazing business opportunity
What does it mean to be cloudlike?
The common definition of the Cloud or cloud computing is variable. Some might define it as many computers distributing work. Others will say it has to do with resource allocation and retrieval. Still others might say it is purely water particles accumulating above ground…
When I talk about the Cloud, I am more interested in the interface. To me, everything is just one big system of pooled resources. Behind the scenes, my browser might be communicating with several different servers from around the world. I leave all of that to my Cloud service provider; I just jam a bunch of data into it and expect it to work correctly. There are Cloud services like Amazon S3 (essentially the world’s biggest hard drive) and Amazon EC2 (a computer with the most processors ever) to Cloud solutions like Google’s App Engine (fastest platform ever). I don’t care where my data goes or how my services behave, as long as the results are as I expected them to be. Note that my parentheticals are ubergeneralizations.
So to put an application into the Cloud means that there is no installation, merely just creating another account in a large monolithic system.
The difference between hosted applications and cloud applications
Quick note: an application hosted on a virtual server in Timbuktu is not the same as a cloud application. A hosted solution implies that there is some sort of limiting global scope. In Blackboard’s case, it would be a university; each university has a separate installation although the installations could be on the same machine.
If Blackboard were more cloudlike, a university joining the system would effectively be the university signing up for an account. You don’t have to wait for some lackey somewhere to run an install wizard. Your account is ready to go. Blackboard currently has something they call Managed Hosting. This is not cloud-like as evidenced by the fact that someone clearly has to install something somewhere.
Why should Blackboard go to the Cloud?
Most of Blackboard’s problems stem from the fact that they have let users (universities) install copies of the software locally. This makes a single problem or bug a patch that has to be applied to thousands of servers. The application of the patch and maintenance of the system is also dependent upon equally as many people, all with varying skill levels. When Gmail adds a new feature, I don’t have to install a patch on my end.
Consolidating this sharded setup to one monolithic system would save money for everyone involved. Universities would no longer have to employ systems administrators whose sole purpose to keep Blackboard running. They would not have to spend money training people on how to use or configure Blackboard. The system would have a core, central feature set that everyone would know how to use. A bug fix on the central system would not have to be pushed out to thousands of universities. Universities would save on hardware costs, employee costs and maintenance costs.
Granted, Blackboard might be the one losing in this equation. Aside from the costs of completely transitioning their current architecture, they would have to hire more operations people. Their system would have to be up all of the time. The operations team would constantly be under an extreme amount of pressure.
But they wouldn’t have to hire people to aid each university in the install process. They could also charge on a per-user basis, rather than on a per-system basis. Blackboard would be more of a service-like than software-like. A bug fix is merely a matter of pushing a change out internally across a uniform system rather than around the world. They would save on time spent hand-holding their customers.
But what about the precious data leaving campus?
While many people complain that mass media leads to desensitization to violence, the Internet has done something similar. The Web has desensitized the digital native generation to privacy concerns. This mostly has to do with the near-impossibility to delete juicy information from the Internet. Back in the day, deleting something was as simple as shredding the document on which it was stored. The speed at which information automatically copies itself is unstoppable. Information is no longer lost into the annals of time.
With the monolithic, cloud-based system, concerns over data privacy are raised. A single system means that any malicious person only has to crack a single system, rather than many. Once inside, the evil-doer has access to all of that information. This is definitely true, but to this day, Gmail has yet to have a major security leak yet it is by far the most popular free email solution.
That being said, the type of information stored on Blackboard is not that sensitive. (Why are they using a secure HTTP connection to do all transactions?) They don’t need to hire a security team on the caliber of Google’s (which probably only Google has anyway). The information contained within Blackboard’s system (providing they aren’t dealing with financial aid data) is going to be harmless. God forbid someone hacks my account and sees my grades (that I will have to display to future employers anyway in the form of a transcript)! God forbid someone reads that paper that I wrote while drunk!
While the issue of data privacy might be one raised by those who “value privacy,” many of peers have accepted that–in a connected world–everyone will know everything about everyone. We act accordingly.
How viable is this solution?
Answer: not very. If Blackboard were to pursue this, they would essentially have to give the middle finger to what they have going on right now. They would have to fight with universities to bring all the data into one central location. It would be a slog and a resource suck, but they would be future proofing themselves significantly and staying ahead of the competition.
What do you think? Have you had bad experiences with cloud-based software (Gmail, Basecamp, Remember the Milk)? Or do you think universities aren’t ready for the cloud?