Cloud Computing | Feature

Build a Case for Cloud

Cloud computing won't necessarily stack up for every school district. You have to make sure you have a clear business case behind it. IT analyst firm Gartner sees two motivators that drive the exploration of cloud computing in education: "significant" cost savings--50 percent or more--and new capabilities, such as new forms of collaboration--like enabling virtual team meetings or sharing research data sets--that would otherwise be cost- or resource-prohibitive.

So build your case around a specific business problem you're trying to fix, whether it is educational or organizational. Make sure that you've sized your choice to be appropriate to the level of cloud maturity your district or school has. If Gmail is the only exposure to cloud operations you've had so far, don't move directly from that to shifting your student information system. Start with something in between, such as a service that delivers new functionality for a core group of users that have been clamoring for it.

Given concerns about security, control, and the financial and human resources changes that must be made, it makes sense to start with a small cloud implementation and build from there. Many districts begin with services that don't involve sensitive data or much disruption.

Compare options for both keeping the particular operation or service in-house and moving it to the cloud. Attach expenses and savings to both columns--in-house and out-of-house--as part of the business case. Yes, cloud computing does entail startup costs, if only in moving data, managing system integration issues, and training people. Plus, there's the hassle factor of making the shift. If you don't understand these costs in full, they could wipe out any perceived savings. For example, if you're moving to a cloud-based application, you may find that you not only have a subscription fee for the software you'll be using, but you may also have a second bill each month from a hosting provider to cover the cost of hosting your software and data.

If you do determine that the cloud is the way to go, start moving that plan (and refining it as you go) up the line of management until you've attained senior sponsorship. Without administration buying into the plan and promoting it internally, commitment could buckle at the first whiff of user resistance.

Put Your Team Together
While you're seeking senior leader support, get others involved too--the people in infrastructure, application development, security, principals, teachers, maybe even parents. All of them need to be informed and made aware of where cloud plans are headed. Plus, that shared ownership of the decision will come in handy as problems surface. (Consider it a bad omen if all fingers point to IT.)

Put together a dedicated cross-functional team to focus on the move to the cloud, with an eye to how some of these same team members, now with experience, can be shifted onto future cloud initiatives.

Work the evaluation of cloud vendors with the same taut structure as you would choose a new wireless provider. Create your scorecard, attach scoring criteria, and engage your community as much as possible in the assessment process.

Use an Experienced Negotiator
Be wary of vendor promises. They all claim to have the perfect solution. Right now, cloud providers are being bought up all over the place as large operators are consuming the smaller ones. Short of peering into a crystal ball, do the due diligence necessary to make sure they're going to be around to support you--and, presuming they don't stick around, find out how you'll be taken care of in their absence.

Once you've selected a vendor, approach contract negotiations as if you were outsourcing the service. Bring in the purchasing person who has the most experience with service provider contracts, because much of the language and hidden gotchas will be similar.

Stay Involved
Finally, continually assess user satisfaction with the cloud service. Not only will this evaluation process let users know that you haven't simply handed off oversight of their IT needs to some invisible technology god, but the results could reveal hidden benefits and deficiencies that will come in handy the next time you shift something to the cloud. After all, learning is the business you're in.

About the Authors

Rama Ramaswami is a business and technology writer based in New York City.

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Informatics and Government Technology.

Dian Schaffhauser is a writer who covers technology and business for a number of publications. Contact her at dian@dischaffhauser.com.

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