CTO point of view: The Evolution of Student Information Systems from the Ground to the Cloud

6 things to consider when moving a legacy Student Information System to the cloud

David King
David King
is CTO at Flywire.

I have been in EdTech building tuition billing and commerce platforms since 1997. For those of us old enough to remember what the Internet was like then, this was no small task. The Internet was just starting to shift, from being primarily content- driven through basic HTML, to the emergence of business applications. Java, one of the most popular Internet languages, was only a year old, as the first version was released in January 1996 and JavaScript as a significant front-end component didn’t get released until 1997. Many of us are used to using Stack Overflow to help find answers to our technical questions, but this didn’t come out until 2008, so we rolled our own and fought through in the early days.

As the Internet was emerging as a new tool for higher education to deliver student services, we also hit Y2K. Remember that? Many institutions had built their own Student Information Systems (SIS) based on legacy languages like COBOL, RPG, and CICS, and many of these systems were not Y2K compliant. There was a mad rush to modernized systems and languages that drove institutions to PeopleSoft, Ellucian Banner, and Colleague. The natural choice was to host these systems on-premise, as colocation services were just emerging and viewed as risky options. We all felt better about having the “iron” on our campus where we could better control security.

That tuition billing and commerce platform I built in 1997 was on-premise too. We would literally install servers at each institution, maintain them and publish software updates as we released new versions of our product. Talk about a scalability headache! We were early cloud adopters when in 2001, I shifted from on-premise to SaaS (Software as a Service). I led the charge in higher education to moving to the cloud as I saw the benefits in cost savings, scalability, and outsourced security.

As much as 75% of the Student Information Systems in place today are more than 10 years old – and the vast majority of those still in on-premise environments. There are different cloud strategies institutions can adopt – and they don’t necessarily involve a rip and replace strategy. Leading institutions are migrating their applications to major cloud providers and/or adopting cloud-based applications at their own pace – and there are massive benefits to be had there.

Why should you move a Student Information System to the cloud?

SIS’s are large and complex and contain a lot of protected data that can span FERPA and HIPAA. So it is understandable that we have been slower to move to the cloud as a market. But the time is now. There are many benefits to an institution to move to the cloud, but you must do it thoughtfully.

Moving to the cloud can allow the CIO to rethink how the IT department delivers services to the institution. By not running these systems on-premise, the department saves money on updating, maintaining, and replacing hardware. Without having to handle these routine tasks, the CIO can have their department focus on more strategic planning and how to help deliver improved services to the students. The IT department can be a true partner to drive innovation with the student financial services office, the financial aid office, and many other areas on campus.

6 SIS cloud migration considerations

As you contemplate the move from running your SIS on-premise to the cloud, you have six things to consider when making this transition.

1. Cost:
One of the most significant advantages of cloud hosting is the ability to reduce capital expenditures on physical infrastructure. However, it's important to consider the ongoing costs of cloud hosting, which can include data transfer, storage, and compute usage fees. Consider a detailed cost analysis before making the decision to migrate.

2. Security:
While cloud providers typically offer robust security measures, it's important to understand the shared responsibility model of cloud security. You need to ensure that your data is secure and that you have proper access controls in place. We have a unique challenge to security in higher education. We need to be secure, but our roots are openness and collaboration. This will produce a unique challenge for your hosting provider.

3. Scalability:
Cloud hosting provides the ability to quickly scale resources up or down in response to changing business needs. Consider the scalability of your application or infrastructure and how it can be optimally managed in a cloud environment.

4. Performance:
While cloud providers offer high-performance computing resources, network latency and Internet connectivity can affect the performance of your application. Ensure that you have adequate bandwidth and performance monitoring tools in place to maintain application performance.

5. Vendor Interoperability:
Many institutions use a multitude of vendors that integrate with the SIS to provide additional services. Are they cloud ready and compatible, or will their interfaces break when pushed to the cloud?

6. Migration Strategy:
Planning a migration to the cloud requires careful consideration of application dependencies and the migration strategy. A well-executed migration strategy can help ensure minimal downtime, data loss, with minimal impact on your users. You should also have a plan to test and validate your application on the new cloud environment.

With careful consideration of all of the above, an SIS cloud strategy can provide real savings in both operating and capital expenses, while enabling flexibility to adopt new functionality and scale applications as your organization demands.

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