On June 7th, I attended the NELA-ITS spring event Cloudy with a Chance of Connecting to the Future! at the Worcester Public Library in Massachusetts. The all-day workshop featured three main presenters and two additional speakers that presented as part of a panel. The speakers provided a fairly thorough overview of the concepts and current products associated with cloud computing with a focus on specific library-appropriate applications. The three main speakers discussed cloud-based or “cloudy” projects that they had worked on. As someone that has evaluated various cloudy products I was pleased that the three main speakers provided a balanced picture of cloud services without claiming them as the solution to everything nor being overly negative.
The first speaker, Edward Iglesias, Systems Librarian from Central Connecticut State University, gave a thorough overview of cloud services, giving a sort of brief history of common library applications and services, laying the conceptual groundwork for the day that was no doubt a help to the less tech-oriented librarians in the crowd.
The distinctions between traditional, legacy library services were contrasted with cloud services. Legacy application services, those around since the 1990s, like ILSystems, have a price structure that charges for additional modules/functionality, have a specialized local client, are often customized and difficult to upgrade, are bought with perpetual license, and the library interacts with a specific sales rep.
Cloud services include a wide range of products that fall into the following categories: SaaS, software as a service, PaaS, platform as a service, IaaS, infrastructure as a service. Products described as cloud services cover a wide range of functionality including specific applications, development platforms that homegrown applications can be deployed on, storage, and virtualized hardware infrastructure. The common attributes that tie these products together are the design to operate natively on the net from the start. They are purchased through an ongoing subscription model or pay as you go, there may be some configurability but not much ability to customize, new features are rolled out on an ongoing basis, and there is generally no downtime for overall upgrades.
While discussing the variety of definitions and wide spectrum of services described as cloud, Iglesias gave the following definition “if you can find a human that can touch the server, it is not cloud computing”
The advantages of cloud services include gained autonomy to implement new services without the need to change other systems such as firewalls, cost savings, increased flexibility, less maintenance, and increased reliability. This seems a specific advantage for libraries that regularly find their hands tied by university or municipal IT departments. The chief disadvantage is the loss of local control.
A key point made by Iglesias was that while storing critical data in the cloud takes it out of your direct, physical control, chances are that a large provider has more security expertise and monitoring in place than any single library. While it may seem counter intuitive, storing in the cloud may be the more secure solution.
There was also focus on the need for evaluating an exit strategy. When considering any service you must ensure that you can get your data back out in a timely and usable format should you discontinue your relationship.
The second speaker, Jennifer Koerber, Web Services Librarian at the Boston Public Library, with a talk focused largely on the on new services and resources that could be used by libraries and provided to patrons. Koerber discussed libraries as supporting the learning needs of library users, particularly with emerging trends such as social media, maker spaces. Presenting a number of different forwarding thinking projects, programs from libraries around the country were discussed in the context of growth areas for library services.
Koerber made an excellent comparison of modular, storefront libraries in Boston as the physical equivalent of cloud-based services. The popup libraries are created and recreated as needed in areas of need allowing the nimble expansion of services as needed without the burden of permanent infrastructure.
The final speaker was the ever wonderful Jessamyn West. A longtime reader of Jessamyn’s blog, Librarian.net, I was very much looking forward to her presentation.
West gave a bit of historical and technology overview discussing “the cloud” as a marketing buzzword, while not necessarily bad, is just a concept created to sell. The actual definition of cloud doesn’t matter, what matters in the need to back up your stuff. The analog she used to describe the cloud was the phone system as software and voicemail as remote storage- essentially software as a service with cloud storage.
Cloud is basically renting vs. owning software, cloud is about not having the server in the basement; cloud is outsourced computing. The chief concerns for migrating services to cloud platforms were discussed as complying with HIPPA and FERPA, privacy, USA patriot act, data ownership, and the password problem.
The main takeaway was that free means you’re the product. Whether evaluating a service for institutional use or personal use, you should ask: does it cost money? Do I pay for usage or access? Am I the product? Followed by: what security is there? What laws govern the data?
The NELA-ITS spring event is an example of the type of library/technology events that I really enjoy. The three speakers provided a great overview of the general technology, a focus on library services, a look at what library- public and academic- are doing, and guidance for evaluating and implementing. Unlike many Technology (with a capital T) conferences the presentations were level-headed, not overly enthusiastic or overly bleak, and entertaining.