Cloud Computing | Feature

What the Cloud Can Do for You

What the Cloud Can Do for You
How can cloud-based services improve school operations? Let us count the ways.

1) Robust Resiliency and Data Recovery
First, let’s start with the resiliency and data recovery attainable through the use of redundant systems and off-site backup. A couple of years ago the only servers residing in the data center for the Saginaw Intermediate School District (SISD) in Michigan were those belonging to the regional service center. Now with a private cloud, the data center is running 80 virtual servers, only 32 of which belong to the district.

The remaining servers are accessed by other districts served by the SISD that found advantages in relinquishing physical control of their boxes. The SISD has a generator backup, which the districts didn’t. It also has a mirror site located at one of its larger client districts, which provides off-site redundancy. "That has really caught on like wildfire in a two-year span," says Jeff Johnson, the SISD’s director of technical services.

The migration began when the district put in its first storage area network and began using virtualization to consolidate its servers for better management of services. That led to the ability for the SISD to sell disk storage space to its client districts. Eventually, that shifted to hosting of server operations too.

"By our hosting, they’re not losing anything," Johnson notes. "They’re not losing control, computing power, or any of those things. But they’re gaining all the benefits of our data center redundancy, our generator, and our backup systems. And we’re sharing costs on all of that now instead of everybody trying to do it on their own."

2) Anywhere Computing
Second, there’s "anywhere computing." Users simply open a browser window and start working. That’s how the Minnesota Online High School(MNOHS), which has between 250 and 300 students, operates. According to systems engineer Sarah Carsello, the sole IT person on staff, "We’re completely, 100-percent mobile. You can set up camp in an airport. If you wanted to go on the road and stop off at a rest area--anywhere there’s internet--you can work."

3) No More Equipment Baggage
Third, cloud computing offers a heady dose of freedom regarding equipment and vendors. "We’re an extremely small school. We don’t have the bandwidth or the desire to have our own servers," explains MNOHS Executive Director Ned Zimmerman-Bence. "Everything we do is hosted off-site. Our [learning management system] is hosted with Blackboard. Our student information system is hosted with Infinite Campus. Our SharePoint system is hosted out."

That provides definite operational advantages. "Because we’re not investing in our own hardware, we’re not locking ourselves into a specific operating system or having to constantly upgrade and maintain and patch our equipment," Carsello adds.

In the traditional approach, moving from one vendor to another might require writing off software or hardware that’s been purchased or time invested in configuring the system. By choosing cloud-based services, the school can cut its losses more quickly and be selective about its service providers. "If we don’t like them, we can say, ‘Okay, we’re done with you; we’re moving to the next one.’"

4) Effortless Analytics and Monitoring
Fourth, Carsello notes that services delivered by the web from a third-party company can act as a monitor to deliver analytics that are vital to administrators--or simply to find out whether a student is being honest or not. Blackboard Learn, the school’s LMS, which is hosted by the vendor, delivers crucial metrics to ensure that students are doing their work and that they’re "attending" school (albeit online). "If they’re not, they can’t be a student anymore," Carsello states.

Likewise, if a student fusses that he or she can’t finish an assignment because the math software wasn’t accessible, Carsello can log into a utility to see if the student has been pinging the school’s DNS server or not. "We have a couple of different ways to see if they’re telling the truth and really experiencing a technical issue," she says.

5) Simplified Scalability
Fifth, cloud computing offers a measure of simplified scalability to respond to changes in computing demand. The vision is that, as a school expands or shrinks its user base, so too can it crank up or wind down its subscription-based licensing. For example, the year-old Coleman Tech Charter High School in San Diego expects to grow from 50 students in its first year to 480 by the 2014-2015 school year. That growth can easily be handled by the cloud-based systems in use, says Assistant Principal Neil McCurdy.

In fact, he’s so confident that cloud-based services can do the heavy lifting, the school has no intentions of hiring an IT professional. McCurdy, a Ph.D. in computer science, will handle the bulk of IT needs; and what he can’t cover, a student IT team will take care of. That includes helping other students figure out why they can’t access the internet, salvaging data from computers before they’re sent off for repair by swapping out hard drives, and other straightforward forms of troubleshooting.

Where an IT pro might come in handy, McCurdy is creating ways to automate the work. For example, to provision services for new users, a staff person can enter student or staff information into a Google spreadsheet that’s shared by everyone who needs access to it, and that activity "automatically creates the user in the system and gives them their Google Docs account," he says.

6) Freeing Up IT’s Time
Of course, not all of the benefits of cloud computing accrue simply to the organization that’s running it. They also add up for those individuals supporting the IT operations. As MNOHS’s Carsello points out, with cloud computing, "I can sleep at night. I don’t have to have my cell phone on my nightstand to go off to alert me that a server went down or a service is unavailable. Now, because we have everything hosted, I can go on vacation. I can have a holiday and not have to worry about anything breaking. Other people are responsible for it."

About the Authors

Charlene O’Hanlon specializes in technology reporting and is based in the New York area.

Dian Schaffhauser is a former senior contributing editor for 1105 Media's education publications THE Journal, Campus Technology and Spaces4Learning.