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Smarter Libraries through Technology: Cloud Computing Reshapes Library IT Expectations

Smart Libraries Newsletter [February 2017]

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The technology infrastructure in libraries and other organizations continues to see a major shift away from local installations to various forms of externally hosted deployments. SirsiDynix, for example, recently announced that it now hosts software for more than 2,000 of its customers. Products such as OCLC's WorldShare Management Services, Ex Libris Alma, and Apollo from Biblionix, are available only through software as a service. The majority of libraries implementing a new integrated library system (ILS) opt for a vendor-hosted solution, even when there is an option to host locally. Even libraries continuing with a given ILS often shift from local implementation to hosted services from their vendor at the point of contract renewal or when their server equipment reaches its end of life. These factors result in the move toward hosted services as one of the pronounced library technology trends currently underway.

Often characterized as the move to the cloud, the move away from local hosting of systems brings major implications for how libraries will budget and manage technology and for the career tracks of technologists. It's no great surprise that the tasks and activities within technology-focused professions change rapidly—and that skills must continually adapt. The shift toward hosted systems simply represents the latest technology change, which demands that organizations and individuals reorient their perspectives.

Systems installed in house come with a slate of responsibilities for their technical and operational management. These responsibilities correspond to the layers of the technology stack:

  • The hardware itself, such as servers and storage arrays, needs to be procured, installed, monitored, and periodically upgraded or replaced. This equipment must be housed in proper environmental conditions, including adequate cooling and fire controls. It is routine to rely on service from the manufactures for hardware repairs, but having technicians with expertise in dealing with server hardware components can be invaluable for organizations that operate their own data centers.
  • Network support for a local system involves a cluster of activities, ranging from basic connectivity via switches and routers to protecting security via carefully configured firewalls, anti-malware appliances, and other defensive equipment. Other tasks include management of IP addresses, now IPv6 as well as the longstanding IPv4, DNS naming, digital certificates, and configuration of ports and protocols. The configuration of web services and APIs to operate via encrypted HTTPS protocols has recently become a vital component of deploying systems in a way that enhances security and protects the privacy of customer activity and institutional data.
  • Operating systems likewise require attention. Both Microsoft Windows and the various flavors of Linux or Windows require administrators to test and apply periodic updates and security patches. The management of a server running either operating system requires detailed knowledge of the many internal components and utilities. Complex installations may require monitoring of resources, such as memory, CPU utilization, and network bandwidth. Competent system administrators will have a deep understanding of each component of the operating system. System administrators will need the skills to create scripts, schedule scripts, and batch routines needed to ensure the ongoing stability and performance of the server and its resident applications.
  • Almost all major business applications, such as ILSs, rely on databases that also require careful attention. A database administrator (DBA) will have intimate knowledge of the capabilities of the database management system involved. A DBA will be able to implement and maintain the configuration and tuning parameters to ensure data integrity and optimal performance.
  • Data backups and disaster recovery planning provides essential preparations for any possible failure that could potentially result in the loss of data. These routines must be periodically tested and validated. Reliable backups are especially important given the recent spate of ransomware attacks in which malicious intruders encrypt data and demand payment to provide the keys necessary to release them. Backups must be isolated from the system in such a way that they are not also attacked along with the active versions.
  • The main application software, such as an ILS, also requires considerable attention. There may be the need for setting and monitoring technical tuning parameters as well as functional configuration. This aspect of administration requires more of a blend of technical expertise and an understanding of the capabilities of the system, the requirements of library personnel, and many other aspects of its operational use.

The shift from a local installation to vendor hosting changes the locus of responsibility for many of these layers of technical activity. In most cases, the vendor or hosting provider will assume operational responsibility for hardware, the network, the operating system, the database, and disaster planning and recovery. The performance of these tasks would be specified in the terms of service language included in the license agreement or contract. These tasks also do not necessarily involve specific library-oriented expertise, but rather are a commodity in the realm of data center operations. Although the execution of these tasks may be performed externally, libraries must remain diligent and ensure that the vendor can demonstrate compliance with required terms of service at each level.

Although the ILS might be seen as the largest and most common example of the trend toward outsourced infrastructure support, almost all other categories of systems have, or will see, similar patterns. Content resources made the shift long ago as CD-ROM networks gave way to web-based resources. Discovery services, library guides, scheduling systems, and almost any other genre of library-oriented software is increasingly only available via software as a service. Libraries involved in technical development are much more likely to use infrastructure as a service from Amazon Web Services or a competing provider than to work with local physical servers. The movement to external and abstract computing infrastructures pervades almost all categories of software, not only within the library, but, in most cases, also throughout its parent organization.

As the library lightens its responsibility for the lower levels of technical infrastructure, it can focus its energy and expertise on the application and presentation layers of its systems. Library technologists can spend their time less on behind-thescenes infrastructure management, which has little visibility or appreciation by the organization, and more on activities and projects with more direct impact on their fellow staff members or library users.

Some examples of these more library-centered tasks might involve creating customized reports, loading and extracting patron, bibliographic, or financial data, or working with the APIs to implement interoperability with external systems. Such work benefits from library-specific expertise and perspective. Libraries can gain more value from their automation platforms when they can focus their technical talent on optimizing the use of data, refining workflows, and creating efficient connections with other business applications in their organization and with integrating with the platforms or portals of interest to their patrons. Opportunities abound in the area of analyzing data to better inform collection development, resource allocation, and other operational decisionmaking processes.

The ever-decreasing levels of responsibility for technical infrastructure management brings large implications for the skill sets required of systems librarians and other technical personnel within the organization. These in-house technologists will naturally need to evolve their areas of expertise accordingly. Those involved with deeper infrastructure should be able to apply their existing expertise and incrementally gain experience with new tools and technologies at the application and presentation level. They may enjoy working with programming frameworks, such as Ruby on Rails or Python, in conjunction with the APIs of the various automation products to fulfill areas of functionality or interoperability not built in. These examples represent just a fraction of the possibilities open to technical personnel as their world changes around them. Constant refreshing of skills has long been the key survival strategy for the careers of professionals involved in technology.

This trend also means that libraries will evolve the shape of their internal IT departmental staffing. Some may be able to gradually reduce the number of personnel dedicated to technology support. The economics associated with software as a service assumes an all-inclusive license fee in return for lower levels of spending on local infrastructure and related support personnel. Reduced needs for infrastructure support can also translate into more attention to patron-facing and staff-oriented technology as well as new areas of strategic activities, such as support for research data, involvement with scholarly communications, or digital collections. Libraries may want to recruit or cultivate expertise in areas such as user experience, semantic web technologies, and other areas aligned with current or evolving areas of the library's strategic involvement.

Software as a service, vender-hosted systems, and other forms of cloud computing can not only be seen as a trend with strong momentum, but can also be seen as a trend that can mesh well with library priorities. Back-end infrastructure can be seen as a commodity service that can be provided more efficiently, with more security, and with higher reliability through specialized service providers operating large-scale data centers. Libraries can refocus their talents and resources on activities closer to their users and with more direct impact on assisting the work of their staff members. Although there may be negative as well as positive aspects of reliance on external technology infrastructure, the overall impact aligns well with current library strategies and economic realities.

View Citation
Publication Year:2017
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Smart Libraries Newsletter
Publication Info:Volume 37 Number 02
Issue:February 2017
Publisher:ALA TechSource
Series: Smarter Libraries through Technology
Place of Publication:Chicago, IL
Record Number:22275
Last Update:2022-12-05 15:05:20
Date Created:2017-02-17 10:31:56