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The future of campus card servers

Andrew Hudson   ||   May 30, 2014  ||   

Throughout their history, dedicated servers have been a fact of life for card programs both large and small. Over time, however, the evolution of campus card systems and advancements in computing technology have given rise to newer alternatives to the traditional, dedicated server.

Card offices now have a wealth of options to choose from that can enable them to either leverage in-house servers or eliminate hardware altogether. What, then, should an institution consider when weighing its options?

Traditionally, the issue posed by in-house servers has been the cost of maintenance and human resources to keep them running. Additionally, in-house servers require physical space that must be secured and protected against the outside world and the natural disasters it can bring.

Using this logic, then, minimizing the number of servers needed to manage a system would make sense for any institution. But minimizing and eliminating are two very different things.

One alternative to the traditional server setup is Software as a Service. This architecture enables a school to cut back on–or eliminate altogether–server hardware on campus by either moving the card system to the cloud, or hosting it in an off-site server via a third-party provider.

Software as a Service essentially gives institutions the opportunity to outsource its card system. It can be an ideal fit when in-house expertise is limited or resources are constrained.

But as outsourcing has gained momentum, another shift has taken place. Computing power has increased and the price of physical servers has fallen, making the cost argument against campus-hosted servers a debatable topic.

“The major advantage of on-site servers is total control over your system and the data stored within,” says Brian Adoff, executive vice president at NuVision Networks. “Cloud computing is light years ahead of where it was a handful of years ago, both in terms of speed and reliability, but it still can’t compete with an on-site system,” he suggests.

Comparisons aside, Adoff points out that in-house servers remain a core element of higher education. “I’m not aware of a campus without an IT department that doesn’t already support on-site servers,” says Adoff. “In the past, bringing on a One Card system meant purchasing and maintaining a $10,000+ hardware server, but today virtualized servers are drastically bringing those costs down.”

Understanding SaaS

Initial approaches to server reduction and outsourcing have led to some confusion between the various solutions available to institutions.

In the 90’s Application Service Provider, or ASP, was the buzzword. ASPs hosted and managed specialized applications, helping organizations to reduce costs through central administration.

A predecessor to the contemporary Software-as-a-Service model, ASPs hosted dedicated third-party applications on behalf of clients. This would be similar to a campus card vendor offering to host a university’s dedicated system, eliminating the need for on-campus hosting.

It’s particularly important to recognize the differences between hosted services and Software-as-a-Service solutions, explains Kent Pawlak, director of Product Strategy at Blackboard Transact.

“Hosted solutions generally involve moving the same application, deployed on-premise, to a remote hosting facility with each application continuing to be dedicated for a single organization or tenant,” says Pawlak.

“Today, a school on the East Coast can host a campus card system in a data center in California,” says Taran Lent, vice president of Product Development at CardSmith. “But when you do that you haven’t materially changed the economics or logistics around service delivery. You haven’t created any benefit or leverage, you’ve only moved where you’re hosting the system from point A to point B.”

Software as a Service and most cloud-based applications, on the other hand, are designed to enable many institutions to share software and hardware with logical separations of data.

Virtual servers, multi-tenancy bring change

The current Software-as-a-Service trend shows vendors consolidating servers, leveraging advancements in computing power and reducing relative costs. In addition to the Software-as-a-Service model, server virtualization and multi-tenancy are also transforming the server market.

A virtual server essentially acts as a real, physical computer with one notable difference: the software being run on a virtual server is separated from hardware resources. One machine can run many virtual servers and one virtual server can easily migrate from one machine to others.

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