A standard setup of computing on a business' premises — a server in a closet or basement, and software loaded on individual machines — is a model that's likely to drift into obsolescence, according to several local computer experts.
As cloud-based computing gains in popularity and power, businesses and educators need to rethink training for the next generation of computer science specialists, and for students, in general, according to tech-based business leaders and two higher-education professionals.
“Cloud [computing] now is undergoing a major shift and it’s going to change the landscape substantially,” said Albemarle County resident Steve Fey, president of Richmond-based Proxios. The company, launched in 1999, supplies hardware and software over a network, or cloud.
Fey has about 35 years of experience in computing, control systems and technology; he's also worked for Texas Instruments, Honeywell and Tyco Fire and Security.
In non-technical terms, cloud computing companies like Proxios obtain and maintain the essential hardware and software components a customer needs to do their work, Fey said. Proxios employs about 20 people and targets small to midsize businesses.
Around 1995, “We came up with the idea that it simply didn’t make sense [for companies] to own and manage their computers and networks any more than it makes sense to own and manage a generator in your backyard to get electricity in your house,” said Proxios CEO Frank Butler.
“As we’ve made computing easier for people … who aren’t necessarily programmers, behind the scenes, the technology has gotten more and more sophisticated,” Fey said.
“As a user, you need it to be easy, but for the IT staff that has to make sure all that works and stays secure, and no matter where you are it sort of plugs and plays? Easier said than done.”
According to a recent report and survey conducted by technology products provider CDW, 39 percent of organizations report that they are implementing or maintaining cloud systems, which is up from 28 percent in 2011. The survey of more than 1,200 information technology professionals included small, medium and large businesses; local and state governments; and health care and higher education professionals.
“We decided to build a company that essentially delivered utility computing, where you would subscribe to a service, where you would get any piece of software delivered at any time to any device,” said Fey.
“The goal is to take everything you have in the server room ... and then take all your software, install it on our cloud and give it back to you virtually, and we’re able to do that in almost every case of customer we encounter,” Fey added.
Marty Humphrey, an associate professor in the Department of Computer Science at University of Virginia, said one task for educators is to ensure that students are able to author new cloud-based applications.
"On the one hand this will not require a radical rethinking of computer science curriculum because at the core, cloud applications are based on algorithms and data structures, which have been the foundation of computer science courses since the beginning," he said by email.
"But on the other hand, cloud applications are so important that we will need to ensure that computer science students are up-to-date with the latest frameworks and data analysis tools,” Humphrey said. “This can be a challenge because the field is changing so quickly."
Humphrey has designed a computer science course specifically on cloud computing but said his main challenge is choosing the particular technologies around which to design the course.
Shivaji Samanta, the chief information officer at Piedmont Virginia Community College, said he thinks cloud computing is clearly reshaping how instructors approach student education overall.
“I do not see it as affecting computer science education specifically as much as it affects education in general in more profound ways,” Samanta said by email. “The student today expects the learning modules to be available in bite-sized chunks that they can assimilate from anywhere, anytime, which pretty much makes traditional lecture models obsolete. We are all working with ways we can make this ‘flipped classroom’ model work with the use of technology and instructional styles.”
Humphrey also said the time is coming when few if any businesses will employ the traditional information technology setup or even traditional IT staff.
"The economics of cloud computing have been compelling for a number of years now," he said. That shift is already under way in the Virginia Community College System, of which PVCC is a part.
Samanta said the Information Technology Services department of the Virginia Community College System serves more than 500,000 active students of 23 colleges at 40 campuses from a centralized data center with the largest implementations of the Oracle Student Information System and the Blackboard learning management system in the world.
Yet, even with such a large footprint, Samanta said he’s still not convinced moving to a full cloud model would be the right strategy for PVCC at this time.
“Could these functions be moved to a third-party cloud service? I doubt it, as we would not be able to guarantee the service expectations for such specialized functions,” he said. “We do, however, leverage cloud computing by outsourcing our student email to a third party, as that has become more of a commodity level service with available multiple vendors, and are considering similar initiatives for our staff email and web services.”
Humphrey, too, said security is a concern that’s slowing the migration to cloud-based computing.
“Security has always been the top reason cited when people are asked why they haven't moved to the cloud, but day by day, this is becoming less of an issue as people realize that in many situations, cloud computing is as secure or even more secure than the alternative."
Despite those challenges, Fey said he think the opportunities outweigh the shortfalls and that broader adoption of cloud computing will continue.
“With technology, it’s always evolving, so whatever you’re counting on today, you can’t necessarily count on it tomorrow. It’s the nature of the beast,” Fey said.