Sian Harris explores how the growth and improved accessibility of the cloud is presenting a wealth of exciting opportunities for research libraries
The ‘cloud’ has been hitting the mainstream headlines lately – complete with stories about naked celebrities and explanations that no real clouds are actually involved.
As Tamir Borensztajn, vice president of discovery strategy at EBSCO Information Services, observed, ‘In the not too distant past, cloud computing was sort-of a mystery to most people. Just in 2012, a [US] survey by Citrix showed that 51 per cent of people believed that stormy weather affects “cloud computing”.’
But it is not all scare stories about leaked photos or lack of technical understanding. The notion of cloud computing is deeply embedded into our lives and has been for some years.
It also, believe many library systems providers, offers many exciting opportunities for libraries.
‘Cloud applications have played an important role for research libraries for quite some time. If you look at how research is done, it is in fact conducted in the cloud; premium content (such as scholarly journals) and the software that provides access to this content, is predominantly cloud-based. Moreover, solutions that allow us to measure the impact of scholarly research are also cloud-based. So the cloud is really central to the core mission of research libraries,’ continued Borensztajn.
‘The cloud is part of our personal lives. The ultimate in cloud computing in libraries is OCLC WorldCat, which has been around for generations,’ noted Jane Burke, vice president of market development at ProQuest. The more recent trend towards discovery services also makes use of the cloud.
Such tools, while already embedded in library processes, may not be immediately obvious to librarians and users as taking place in the cloud. More recently, however, the trend has begun of moving many standard library tasks and processes away from local control into the cloud.
‘The cloud is already playing a very large role for research libraries but it’s only now that people are committing to doing their own transactions in the cloud that they really notice it,’ Burke added.
‘Increasingly, all management services are moving to the cloud, including linking, circulation, acquisitions and description. These systems must support complete collection management if they are going to displace the locally deployed ILS.’
Benefits of the cloud
There are several potential benefits to libraries of using cloud-based resources and services. These include increased efficiencies, opportunities for collaboration, decreased need for in-house technical expertise, cost savings, and more timely access to the latest IT functionality. The cloud also promises improved workflow, automated software updates, redundancy, and back-ups.
‘Libraries have a real need for efficiency in processing operations, notably combining maintenance of print and electronic content in a single set of workflows,’ said Burke. ‘The new model systems offer unified workflows for all types of content within a single solution. They also offer the platform to provide qualitative benefits, such as a centralised knowledgebase. A robust knowledgebase is critical to delivering unified collection management.’
‘Efficiency lies at the heart of the surge in cloud computing,’ observed Borensztajn. ‘For libraries in particular this means the ability to redirect spending on patron content versus infrastructure for example, and to spend less staff time on hardware and application updates. Cloud-based applications enjoy full redundancy and fail-over, in fact allowing us to “outsource” some of the headaches associated with maintaining applications and files on our own computers or servers.
And of course, in a cloud environment updates are automatically deployed and instantly made available to all users.’
Roger Brisson, European strategy director at Ex Libris, agreed: ‘Cloud-based computing has the potential to be a great enabler; facilitating collaboration across departments, institutions and disciplines, and relieving staff of routine, repetitive and technical tasks so that they can concentrate on delivering improved and innovative services to end-users.
‘Libraries are increasing expected to demonstrate their value to the institutions they serve, particularly by demonstrating the return on investment for expenditure on resources. Cloud-computing allows them to reallocate resources from managing technology to developing added-value services that satisfy these demands.’
Collaboration is another key potential benefit, particularly for research libraries, as Liz Van Halsema, marketing content writer at SirsiDynix, observed. ‘Cloud technology promotes an increased collaboration between libraries, researchers, and students, both in and outside of a single campus. The cloud breaks down institutional walls to give users access to a wider range of research materials,’ she said.
‘With less time required for hardware maintenance and troubleshooting, libraries can focus their attention on faculty and student needs. In other words, they can focus on being librarians. While system administrators benefit from increased data access and efficient administrative tools, librarians can untether themselves from reference desks and access all of their necessary tools through mobile devices, tablets, and computers. Users can also access journals, videos, and more from their personal devices, anywhere, any time. Overall, cloud technology promotes openness, flexibility, and stability for its users,’ she continued.
Sarah Hickman Auger, director, library platform and product strategy at Innovative Interfaces added that this collaboration is not limited to researchers. ‘It is also applicable to the libraries themselves – resource sharing, shared services, and benchmarking among cohorts is not new to research libraries, but cloud platforms offer more efficient and innovative ways of enabling those interactions.’
Cloud-based products also promise to be easier to maintain and update – changes and configurations can be made once and rolled out across a whole system or several libraries.
‘When research libraries look at what they are spending their money on – individual applications, individual servers – and the time spent on maintaining them they see opportunities to reduce costs,’ said Burke of ProQuest. ‘There are opportunities for easier, faster and cheaper resource sharing, without the need for complicated and expensive overlay systems.’
And this, in turn, promises cost benefits. ‘It reduces the hard costs, hidden costs, and demands on valuable IT staff because there is no hardware to purchase and maintain, no software to install and upgrade, and less batch loading/overlaying. With unified management of both print and electronic resources in a single solution, there are fewer separate systems to buy and maintain,’ she added.
Hickman Auger at Innovative Interfaces noted: ‘The cloud offers more efficient delivery mechanisms and information technology economies, which free research libraries to refocus their dollars and attention on services that directly support research and educational outcomes. From a functional service perspective, cloud presents a scalable foundation for ubiquitous access and scholarly sharing.’
‘Researchers need access to materials and tools from multiple locations and different devices for different activities, and cloud services make it possible to provide multiple points of access without necessarily requiring multiple client or app installations.’
Design and integration
There are potential integration benefits too. ‘From a technology perspective one of the advantages is that it allows the integration of systems. It hides the plumbing. From a library perspective it’s all in the cloud. We can take advantage of developments at Polaris and VTLS [two companies that Innovative Interfaces recently acquired],’ said Hickman Auger. ‘When you move to the cloud, the different components cease to be visible.’
Andrew Pace, OCLC’s executive director, networked library services, observed that: ‘Libraries gain the greatest benefit when they do not just simply move their standalone management systems to being hosted in the cloud, but rather move to multi-tenancy cloud solutions. Two potential areas of benefit for libraries are: these systems are being developed from the ground up using 21st century architecture; and being multi-tenancy enables new avenues of affordable collaboration.
‘The fact these systems are developed from the ground up and not built on top of pre-existing systems allows the move to service-oriented architecture used by today’s systems,’ he continued. This allows agility in development not possible with legacy software systems and opens the door for future innovation and inclusion of services not currently envisioned by libraries.’
He explained that multi-tenancy software means that software is updated or patched once for all users. In addition, many types of data previously locked up in standalone systems can be shared – meaning it can be created once, enhanced by many and stored and backed up once for all. It also promises interoperability with other library systems and that material vendors systems can be deployed once and then used by all instead of each library configuring, testing and maintaining these interfaces.
Moves to the cloud are not without challenges though, and it is still early days for many libraries. ‘Moving applications to the cloud may raise concerns about recurring fees, decreased control and fewer customisation options,’ commented Borensztajn of EBSCO. ‘There may also be a concern about safeguarding privacy and patron information. These issues will differ by provider and librarians should make sure they understand the deliverables of each service before adoption.’
‘To achieve the desired efficiencies requires re-engineering of local processes,’ observed Burke of ProQuest. ‘That is difficult for many libraries. Without making changes in workflows, the desired efficiencies may not happen.’
She added: ‘These new systems do not – and should not – have all of the detailed functions that the ILS does. Certain functions designed around print title processing are no longer required. This presents an opportunity for the library staff to let go of low value activities and focus on areas where libraries can provide the greatest value and impact. The challenge in architecting what were previously local apps to cloud is that you have to build for the cloud from the beginning otherwise you face an enormous task to rearchitect.’
And there are challenges too with some of the very things that are considered benefits of the cloud. ‘Local differentiation and lack of control come up over and over again,’ said Hickman Auger. ‘While everyone is interested in achieving efficiencies and reducing costs, no institution wants to lose their identity or relinquish their autonomy; from defining custom workflows to accommodate local policies and personnel to scheduling software upgrades, there are tradeoffs to consider when moving to a cloud-based solution.
‘There is a question of cultural acceptance – when the goal of the cloud is to achieve greater efficiencies and reduce costs, the solution often translates into a direct impact on one or more job descriptions and/or budget category, so libraries are often concerned with addressing those implications as part of their cloud investigation; responsibilities and resource allocation that must be carefully managed to ensure acceptance and success, and some environments are more receptive than others.’
Brisson of Ex Libris has also observed this challenge. ‘As with the introduction of any new technology, change needs to be managed. However, most people are familiar with web-based applications and the younger generation of users are so at home with it that the platform on which applications run is almost a non-issue for them. In fact many users increasingly question why they cannot access all applications and data from anywhere on any device.’
He has some tips for libraries in choosing a vendor: ‘Robust security, scalability, availability and reliability are areas that need to be addressed when selecting a vendor. However these are not brand new factors; professional IT teams have carefully managed these from the earliest days of on-premise integrated library systems and through the integration of hosted internet applications. Cloud-based vendors are simply delivering these services across a different medium with slightly different network architecture.
‘However, one thing libraries do need to look out for when choosing a new cloud-based solution, is that some systems which are presented as cloud-based, SaaS environments are actually server-based applications being hosted by the vendor. Libraries that adopt this kind of system will lose many of the benefits that SaaS and cloud can bring.’
Privacy and security
A big concern for many libraries thinking about the cloud is security. ‘In the last 10 years libraries have got more concerned about security,’ said Hickman Auger. ‘When l started at Innovative Interfaces it was very much “we’re libraries, not banks”.’
However, she thinks that there is potential for security to be better in the cloud. ‘You are no longer relying on local IT shops to manage control. Using the cloud allows you to lock down in a more secure way but still provide the interaction required. The risks are manageable and the benefits are so great, and you are not trying to tackle the problem one institution at a time.’
Nonetheless, such concerns can limit cloud adoption, as Van Halsema of SirsiDynix observed. ‘Depending on the type, libraries may have certain restrictions for cloud-based solutions. Government, military, and other special libraries, for example, cannot store certain data outside of the institution. While they may be able to take advantage of certain cloud technologies, they most likely won’t be able to fully move to the cloud; at least, not in the traditional sense. On the other hand, public and academic libraries are making huge shifts toward cloud solutions.’
‘Overall, there is a concern about being reliant on someone else’s platform for performance and reliability,’ agreed Burke. ‘While, as a supplier, we do not see that as a concern, it is a result of abandoning the locally deployed system. Even though databases and discovery systems have always been centrally hosted, libraries are concerned about trusting their local data and local operations to a cloud-based solution.’
A way to tackle some of the concerns, she said, is to use commercial data centres. ProQuest’s Intota uses Amazon Web services. ‘They have great privacy and local centres so, for example, European customers’ systems are hosted in Europe. This gives us geographic benefits. They also have redundancy, for example, dual electrical and dual internet.’
So, what is the situation today? ‘The move to cloud-based systems is still in an early adopter phase when one looks at the number of libraries that have moved enterprise systems to the cloud versus the number still running on standalone systems,’ noted Pace of OCLC. ‘However, an increasing number of libraries are moving as many of their services and systems to the cloud as possible. In these cases, it has made more of an impact and difference in how the libraries operate.’
Hickman Auger noted that the cloud has been completely implemented for some services and is moving toward the trend for others. ‘Cloud is by no means “experimental” as SaaS has become the preferred option for many institutions, but true cloud solutions for some service types are still immature, so libraries are moving at varying paces. Still, the direction is clear, and we expect research libraries will continue the move toward cloud-based solutions at an increasingly rapid rate,’ she noted.
‘We are in a time of transition. Some have made the move, others considering, others just looking. Wherever people are, it’s going in one direction. What’s most exciting is the opportunity to produce better services. It opens up new shared services. What is exciting is when we talk about developing shared services, things like linked data, supporting the semantic web. The reinvigoration of the library as a place and connection with resources is exciting. The cloud gives the opportunity to support online collaboration in the way that physical libraries give a place to support physical collaboration.’
Burke shares Hickman Auger’s enthusiasm. ‘I’m tremendously optimistic about this. I think that research libraries today face very different challenges from the days when they were print warehouses. If you can take these systems and move them out of the way then you can free up time for other things,’ she said.
Brisson of Ex Libris observed: ‘With library management and resource discovery and delivery systems that are hosted on the institutional network, librarians’ and users’ ability to collaborate is limited by the reach of the institution’s network. Moving data and applications to the cloud facilitates sharing and collaboration; that is after all what the internet was designed for.
‘Research libraries are uniquely placed to develop strategic services and partnerships that reach across their entire institution and can help to trigger a shift in internal investment focus that will enhance library funding. These services increasingly involve, for example, support for grant applications and grant compliance, more open data access and management, and longer-term availability and discoverability of research data and resources. Cloud-based technologies enable institutions to integrate these services into their core operations in ways that are much simpler than previously.’
Van Halsema of SirsiDynix neatly summed up why research libraries might want to consider a cloud approach: ‘Cloud-based systems make it easier for researchers and students to recognise the relevance of research libraries.’