Admin Systems | Feature
Managing Assets in the Cloud
Keeping track of an ever-expanding amount of technology assets can be a daunting task for an understaffed district IT department. Two schools turn to the cloud for assistance.
Technology is proliferating in Berkeley County Schools in Martinsburg, WV, a district that serves a student population of 17,000 in three high schools, five middle schools, six intermediate schools, and 14 elementary schools. "We are deploying a large number of electronic whiteboard and data projectors, as well as a good number of either donated/refurbished computers or new computers, including netbooks, notebooks, and desktops," says Dave Kenney, director of research and technology at the district. And with the addition of new schools, the amount of tech tools will only continue to grow. "We are opening a new primary school in August where the servers will be virtualized and housed in a nearby data center," Kenney explains. "The desktops in that new school will be 90 percent virtualized. We've decided to [go with] regular PCs in administrative offices and for each teacher."
But despite this growth, the district does not have a very big IT team, according to Kenney. "There are nine people in my department," he says, "and that includes two electricians and a secretary."
To help its small IT team stay on top of its 7,000-plus-and-growing technology resources, Berkeley turned to SchoolDude's cloud-based asset management system, called ITAMDirect. "Going with a cloud-based asset management system was almost like adding another employee or two," Kenney says. "To collect the kind of information the system delivers--just by installing a little client--would never be possible with our staffing levels. So the asset management system helps us, at the first level, to cope with growing assets without commensurately growing staff."
Like Berkeley, Sharon Public Schools (MA) chose ITAMDirect to help its small IT team manage its technology assets. Leo Brehm, the district's director of technology, says that even though Sharon is a relatively small district--with three elementary schools, one middle school, and one high school--its technology asset base continues to grow over time, and at a faster rate than its IT staffing does or can. "The system helps manage some of the pressure inherent in technological growth," says Brehm.
The ITAMDirect client tells the IT team everything it needs to know about a district-owned computer: the operating system, the amount of installed memory, the number of available slots for additional memory, the size of the hard drive, the installed software, expiration dates for warranties and software licenses, and more. Beyond computers, the system also tracks items such as projectors, cameras, and whiteboards--anything that has a value worth cataloging.
Set It and Forget It
Although many school IT departments already have server-based asset management systems in place, cloud-based solutions geared toward K-12 are relatively new--and hence, are scarce. More providers may begin tailoring their offerings to K-12 schools as districts such as Berkeley and Sharon continue to recognize the benefits of managing assets in the cloud.
On top of tracking assets and providing data, SchoolDude's ITAMDirect takes the burden of caring for yet another system off of the district IT team--the main reason why Sharon Public Schools chose a cloud-based solution, according to Brehm. "It is almost a set-and-forget client," he says. "We put it on the machine, and it just continues to report things that are going on every day."
"Part of the attractiveness of the cloud-based system is that somebody else is responsible for backing up the system, making software upgrades, ensuring system availability," agrees Berkeley's Kenney. "We probably could have gone with some kind of traditional system that does the same thing and reports it to our own server, but that's more management for us."
In addition, Kenney notes that taking the asset management to the cloud prevented Berkeley's IT staff from having to add and maintain another server. "We have enough individual servers in my district as it is," says Kenney. "When we go to a cloud-based solution, part of our thinking is that somebody else is going to manage that server." He adds, "I'd say that we've had more than 99.9 percent uptime with the asset management system. I don't know that it's ever gone down. I can't say the same for my own servers."
Another benefit of using a remotely hosted system is the anytime, anywhere access to the data it collects. "Our computers are on a private network, but the asset data being reported is going out on the web; so I can get reports pretty much anywhere I am," explains Kenney. "If I'm at a state-level meeting and I need to know how many old XP machines I'm still running in the district, I can grab that information quickly. It helps us to make decisions."
Sharon's IT staff also has asset data available at their fingertips. Every staff member is equipped with an iPhone, and can view the management system on the go via the phone's browser. "Out of the 1,400 or so laptops and desktops that we have in the district, if something is awry, we can look up and see the history of what was going on with that machine, at any time, from anywhere."
Sharon Public Schools has taken its asset management even further by integrating it with its work order system, SchoolDude's MaintenanceDirect. With the combined systems, work orders are generated from events that happen on the asset tracking side. If a stick of memory goes missing, for example, an emergency work order notifies the entire technology team that it's missing.
The work order that goes out provides everything needed to track down that particular piece of hardware, including its location, the last IP address it had, and the last user to log on to it. The IT team can then document follow-up actions and resolution using the work order system that is tied into the asset management system. And because both the asset management and work order systems are web-based, Sharon IT staff can stay on top of missing equipment no matter where they are via their iPhones. "When they get the notification, they can quickly shift to a web browser, see what the situation is, and respond accordingly," says Brehm. "They don't have to sit at a computer that has the correct client to get into the main piece of software that might be tracking that information."
Brehm cautions that some cloud-based asset management solutions can be costly, in part because they aren't designed for the K-12 market. "Many asset-tracking solutions are priced on a per-unit cost, and in an age where assets are proliferating rapidly, that means costs can proliferate rapidly," he says. Both Sharon and Berkeley County have solutions that are based on student counts--and that allow unlimited clients.
"This pricing [model] is less problematic and more predictable," says Brehm. "I don't have to worry about how many seats of asset tracking I have. When we get a new shipment of computers in, like we did last summer, I don't have to worry about licensing. We took in 200 new machines, and our asset management client was just part of the installation package. It just went on and all of the assets showed up on the system the next day--fully audited."
According to Kenney, security can be an issue with some cloud-based solutions, but not necessarily when it comes to asset management. "This data is not sensitive data," he says. "It's not something that would be alarming were it to be hacked into, although I must say I'm confident of our supplier's security. We've really had no issues with reporting from a private network out to a public server."
Brehm sees the movement to cloud-based asset management as having considerable traction. "I would say it's the direction that a lot of my peers are moving in," he says. "Principally this is because the cloud-based solution doesn't require you to care for that extra server or have another database to maintain. With a traditional system, you get locked into buying a server and maintaining it. You have to have a disaster recovery plan if that server goes down. The cloud-based system assures me minimal downtime, and in fact, I've never had any downtime with our current asset management system. What more can you say?"
Marty Weil is a freelance writer based in Asheville, NC.