What is cloud computing?
The goal of cloud computing is to provide easy, scalable access to computing resources and ICT services without having to own and manage assets like servers yourself. Cloud computing is a general term for anything that involves delivering hosted ICT services over the internet, and as such a consumer of these services needs nothing but a personal computer and internet access.
They are usually described as being Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS) or Software-as-a-Service (SaaS); but there is a lot overlap between these. IaaS means accessing equipment you rent in the cloud rather than own locally; PaaS provides for remote application development and testing; and SaaS is an internet-based software distribution model. Often the client pays on a pay-as-you-use basis – like other “utility services” such as gas and electricity.
Cloud computing has made inroads in the corporate world, but it is not universally accepted – with barriers to adoption including concerns over:
• Its value.
• Integration with existing solutions.
• The security of data.
• Legal/compliance issues – about data held off-site.
So are the concerns the same for educators, and will it save money? Value for money?
Schools’ ICT capital budgets have certainly been hit – ICT funding in new-build academies and free schools has been reduced to £800 from £1,450 per-pupil; Devolved Formula Capital funding is at 20 per cent of its previous value; and the Harnessing Technology Grant has gone.
So while the corporate world has high expectations in terms of cost-savings, what about schools? The answer is that cloud computing will save money. It eliminates the costs of selecting, purchasing, configuring, maintaining, refreshing and managing the hardware and software needed for running the applications to be hosted in the cloud.
There is a difference, however. Schools need predictability in their costs and prefer fixed charges rather than unexpected mid-year spend. The “utility” aspect may need to have a different interpretation for education customers. It is important that schools pay only for the capacity they need and avoid abortive spend in over-specified technology solutions. A predictable revenue charge on a per-user basis is a welcome innovation for the schools market.
Is it secure?
Many headteachers and data managers in schools share the concerns of corporates about security and legality/compliance. The security of, for example, pupil records, exam data and SEN information is paramount. There are some who worry about the whereabouts of the data centres too. The Microsoft “Live” services, for example, are hosted in Ireland and the Netherlands so are compliant with EU data protection legislation. For US and Canada-based services there is a “safe-harbour” agreement allowing UK organisations to have the same data protection rights there.
Cloud service providers take security very seriously. Moving sensitive data outside a school’s own IT network and storing it in an external data centre that is accessed over the internet represents a fundamental shift in thinking for some. That said, making data stored on school servers available to users through remote access and web-based technologies and portable devices generally offers a similar challenge.
The difference in cloud services is that the school needs to satisfy itself (and therefore its parents, employees, pupils and other stakeholders) that both its own and the external service provider are both taking a share in responsibility for security.
Check if the cloud service providers are using data and network encryption. Ask if they secure their solution at many levels, how they ensure continued security with new threats evolving all the time, and try to understand what access controls are in place. Organisations you can trust will provide the answers to these security questions and explain their procedures.
Is my broadband connection up to it?
Many schools still suffer from slow speeds in their broadband connectivity, or cannot afford the cost of a higher speed connection. Others, though to a lesser degree these days, still report that their connectivity is unreliable.
Placing key data in the cloud means you have to be able to rely on your connection. Not being able to access exam work because the connection is down is unacceptable. It is also important to understand the nature of the connection. Is it asynchronous or synchronous – i.e. is data is transferred at different speeds up and down-stream (asynchronous); or at the same speed (synchronous). Most Regional Broadband Consortia are synchronous but commercial offerings are often asynchronous – with the upstream speeds typically only one quarter that of the downstream speed. In the case of cloud computing, the speed of the pipe out of the school is now as critical as the speed of the in-bound connection.
The quality and reliability of your connection will help decide what can be placed in the cloud and what should be stored or mirrored locally. Also, thought should be given to what data or services are critical to a school’s operation and what you could cope without for a time.
It is fair to say the access control, cashless catering and registration systems need to have a local element even if they are replicated in the cloud for longer term data storage purposes. Not being able to get through the doors, register and feed the students because key data stored in the cloud is unavailable could be disastrous!
Making this kind of decision means choosing an ICT partner who understands the special context of education and the way the school works, and who can provide real advice and guidance – not just adopt a “never mind the question … the cloud is the answer” type mentality. That said there is clear evidence that commercial organisations have already grasped the nettle and put their “mission critical” applications into the cloud. Many firms have put their customer relationship management and other key sales tools onto hosted environments.
How flexible is it?
A further concern about the cloud is loss of control. There can be little doubt that schools value their autonomy and the one-size-fits-approach does not apply. Cloud services may involve some risk of “lock-in” if offerings require proprietary interfaces or applications and these could pose data migration challenges when changing from one provider to another. But is this different to the situation faced today with technologies hosted in-school?
Will there be sufficient flexibility in the offerings, and how will they evolve to meet the needs of schools where requirements change rapidly? Interestingly, the pace at which cloud services evolve and flex is remarkable. Most offer the ability to use the latest applications almost instantly, with no need to upgrade.
Is the cloud for you?
The cloud is here to stay, and intelligent application of the cloud in education will reduce cost and make anytime, anywhere learning easier to deliver. It will help with the sustainability and green agendas and solve some of the challenges schools face in providing remote access to critical services.
Moreover, cloud solutions can be applied in a flexible, modular way, with differentiated offerings to meet a particular context – such as differences in broadband speeds or the different needs of staff and pupils. To be able to make the best of cloud services it is important for schools to recognise what the potential issues are, and to do this they will need an ICT partner who understands both education and technology.