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Up in the Air: Cloud Computing and Library Systems

Computers in Libraries [December 2018] The Systems Librarian

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In the last few years, libraries have engaged with some kind of cloud computing for most aspects of their technology infrastructure. The term "cloud computing" tends to be used loosely to describe almost any form of computing in which the hardware or the services provided are accessed via the internet rather than installed on a local computer or housed in the institution's own data center. Some of the more specific arrangements include vendor-hosted applications, SaaS, and infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS). Each of these kinds of cloud computing has found extensive use in the library technology sphere.

Vendor-Hosted Systems

One model of deployment that is often positioned as cloud computing involves vendor hosting of server-based software. Many of the ILS products established as mainstays of the library technology industry are designed to operate on a single server or cluster of servers. Products developed when client/server computing prevailed follow this approach, usually with a single instance of the application serving a single organization. Implementations can vary from large-scale (such as for a consortium comprising many libraries) to those for a smaller, single library. In earlier times, the classic implementation required the organization to house the server within its own facilities. Recently, local installations have largely given way to vendor hosting.

The organization developing the software should be well-positioned to provide hosting services since it would be thoroughly familiar with its resource requirements, configuration details, and other operational issues. In many cases, the vendor would be hosting many hundreds or thousands of instances of the product, taking advantage of high-performance data center infrastructure with advanced monitoring and deployment automation tools to greatly reduce the financial cost and human effort for each instance of the product compared to what would be involved for a library to maintain and host a single system. Vendor hosting is an important source of revenue for vendors. Other advantages include more ability to keep customer systems on current versions of the software and to reduce support costs.

Vendor hosting applications such as ILSs can be implemented in different ways. Some vendors opt to maintain their own data centers and directly manage the servers on which their customer's systems reside. This arrangement gives the vendor complete control of their hosting environment, but it also comes with the heavy burden of data center management, including environmental, security, connectivity, and myriad other tasks. Vendors can choose to operate their customer's instances of their software in a third-party data center that provides industrial-strength environmental conditions and advanced control and monitoring of infrastructure components. Such an arrangement enables data centers to focus on low-level infrastructure, allowing the vendor to concentrate on software deployment. Software vendors may also deploy their products through cloud-based infrastructure such as Amazon Web Services (AWS). AWS, and competing services, can be used for server-oriented applications (such as an ILS as well as multitenant platforms).

Libraries see benefits in vendor-hosting arrangements, primarily from rechanneling the talents of their technical personnel away from low-level support of servers and OSs to creating or supporting other services with more direct value to the organization. If a library operates its own servers and related infrastructure, it needs to devote adequate resources systems and network administration. Security issues alone can be all-consuming. Behind-the-scenes technical administration, although required, tends to be underappreciated. Vendor hosting outsources much of the technical upkeep of the library's technical infrastructure, enabling library technologists to engage in work that will be more noticed and appreciated by the library as well as more strategically important. Moving from working with low-level commodity infrastructure to more visible services not only benefits the library, but can provide more interesting and satisfying work for technical personnel.

Vendor hosting impacts budget planning, replacing upfront hardware and software costs with annual or monthly hosting fees. In most cases, the hosting fees will represent a savings compared to local hardware costs and the personnel allocations for systems administration.

The adoption of vendor-hosted products, especially in the ILS arena, has grown steadily over the last decade. Today, libraries opt for vendor hosting for almost all new ILS implementations. Even when the library plans to stay with its current system, events such as the need for a server replacement or contract renewal are likely to trigger a shift from a local server to a vendor's hosting service. While special circumstances may lead a library to opt for local hosting for new or ongoing system implementations, vendor hosting has become the dominant deployment model for server-based products.

Multitenant Platforms

Most recently, developed applications are likely to be deployed via web-based platforms natively based on cloud computing technologies. These platforms do not dedicate servers or other hardware components to a given organization; instead, they use a distributed environment in which multiple organizations share the same infrastructure and code-base. They are generally characterized as multitenant platforms, and many different organizations and individual users access the features of the application via web-based interfaces. The platform manages access to data and functionality to recognize appropriate organizational and individual permissions. When someone logs in to an application deployed through a multitenant platform, only the appropriate resources for the institution will be available and only the specific features authorized for that person's role in the organization will be supported. Enterprise software for almost all business sectors today is offered through some type of multitenant platform.

This form of technology is ubiquitous in the social network and consumer sector. All the major web destinations are built from highly distributed cloud technologies: Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, Amazon, Netflix, etc. Productivity tools are moving to cloud deployment, with Microsoft's Office 365 as a typical example. It is increasingly rare to need to install software on individual laptop or desktop computers. Mobile devices may use an app rather than a browser-based interface, which interacts with cloud-based services for their work. Uber, for example, operates through an app as it interacts with data and services residing in cloud technologies.

In the library arena, most of the products developed in the last decade are deployed through these cloud-native multitenant platforms. Examples include library services platforms such as OCLC's WorldShare Management Services and Ex Libris Alma; reference tools such as Springshare's LibGuides; and discovery services, such as EBSCO Discovery Service, Ex Libris Alma and Summon, and OCLC's WorldCat Discovery. Content products for libraries have been deployed as multitenant platforms since the earliest days of the web.

The rise of library services platforms and index-based discovery services has led academic libraries into the realm of cloud computing somewhat ahead of other kinds of libraries. These products can be used only through the vendor-provided service, with no option for local installation. The prevailing trend for academic libraries to adopt library services platforms and index-based discovery services has made a tremendous impact on the way that technology is managed in these libraries, with fewer individuals involved in ILS systems and server administration. This change has also reshaped technology budgets. In previous times, implementing a new technology system meant a large first-year expense for servers, software licenses, and training. The new platforms are offered through subscription pricing with consistent annual fees. Some additional costs may apply for the initial implementation (such as for data conversion and training).

Public libraries have not seen quite the wholesale shift to cloud technologies as have their academic peers. Traditional ILSs prevail and provide a strong foundation for their need to support high volumes of circulation transactions. Although many public libraries now have their ILS hosted by their vendor, the proportion of locally hosted systems remains much higher than is seen with academic libraries. The ILS for a public library is likely to be hosted by its city or county data center, which gives the library the same relief from technical administration as would be the case for vendor hosting.

The New Norm

In broad terms, cloud technologies are quite well-accepted by libraries today. A decade ago, vendors wanting to promote their hosting services or those developing multitenant platforms had to convince libraries that accessing their critical systems via the internet using browser-based interfaces would be safe and reliable. More recently, most libraries stipulate that new systems must be developed as multitenant platforms or as software hosted by the vendor.

The pervasiveness of cloud technologies in the consumer and general business sectors provides an important context for library technologies. Even from the relatively conservative position that libraries take when adopting new systems, cloud-based technologies have proven themselves and are now seen as the preferred way to implement strategic library systems. Although remnants of local computing will remain for quite some time, the age of cloud computing has fully arrived in libraries.

View Citation
Publication Year:2018
Type of Material:Article
Language English
Published in: Computers in Libraries
Publication Info:Volume 38 Number 10
Issue:December 2018
Publisher:Information Today
Series: Systems Librarian
Place of Publication:Medford, NJ
Notes:Systems Librarian Column
Record Number:24074
Last Update:2024-06-19 05:59:32
Date Created:2019-03-06 07:44:50