The university decided to approach the project in "baby steps," by running the virtual desktop software on premises with the idea of transitioning it to a public cloud later, says Tim Ferguson, CIO for Northern Kentucky University.
Around 18 months ago, the university did trials of the virtual desktop software from a few vendors, all hosted in-house. The software's performance didn't meet expectations and neither did the price, so the university declined to implement any of the vendors' offers. "They were surprised. We said, 'Here it is in black and white. You'll cost us more money. The ROI is not good enough. Come back to me when you can solve it,'" Ferguson says.
Since then, the university has deployed VMware's View virtual desktop software in-house and is about to start trials running the software on Dell's public cloud, and possibly others. Ferguson expects to have deployed all of the university's labs as virtual desktops hosted in a public cloud by 2014 or 2015, and to be saving around 30 percent over current costs.
The university closely tracks costs in order to be able to present current expenditures to vendors. For the virtual desktop project, Ferguson knows how many staff members support the current implementation, what the hardware costs and how much work it takes dealing with software patches. He also knows usage peaks and valleys, an important issue for a university and one that could help it save money by moving to a public cloud.
This data is extremely important when working with potential vendors, he says. "If I clearly articulate what it costs today, if they can't save me money, why do it?" he says. "If you can't articulate that, it's kind of hard to ask a vendor to do something for you."
One way that Northern Kentucky is making sure cloud services save costs is by pushing its vendors to offer true usage-based costing. Many vendors of SaaS services that Ferguson has looked at are trying to charge on a per-seat basis. But for a university, with its slow times during the summer and holidays, that pricing model doesn't make sense. At peak usage, the pricing would save money for Ferguson but on average, because of the valleys, the per-seat model ends up costing him more than keeping many apps in house.
That's a particularly important issue for Northern Kentucky's ERP system, which supports class registration. The system peaks when students are registering for class and then "flatlines," he says. While his group spends a lot of time managing the on-premises SAP implementation, "if I have to pay for the peak for an entire year, that's not very interesting," he says.
Also, the SAP system is one that the university can't take risks with because the software has to be totally available when students want to register for class. That means Ferguson is going to move that system to the cloud only when he's totally confident it won't fail. "We're going to accept less risk when it comes to those bread and butter systems," he says.
To try to figure out the ROI of any of its proposed cloud projects, Northern Kentucky starts with an ROI calculator and research from Gartner, adapting it for the university's own special needs.
For instance, Ferguson has strict privacy requirements since many cloud services used by the university handle students' information including Social Security numbers and other personally identifying data. NKU includes privacy in its ROI calculation by subtracting value when considering a vendor that doesn't seem to grasp the university's privacy requirements, he says.