Up, Up, and Away
Administrators are finding that freedom from the laborious work of maintaining so much technology rests in the cloud.
- By John K. Waters
As far as Ned Zimmerman-Bence is concerned, cloud computing saved his school. “We were collapsing under the weight of the need to support so many different computers,” says the executive director of the Minnesota Online High School (MNOHS). “You can just imagine the nightmare of a small school supporting a virtually infinite number of computer platforms and configurations for students spread to the four winds of Minnesota.”
MNOHS’ 300-plus students connect with their teachers through a learning management system and are required to use their own PCs with high-speed internet connections to access their courses online. Until recently, the school provisioned those computers by sending out CDs of its licensed software and guiding students through downloads of the open source and custom applications it uses.
“You can imagine the amount of time and money it took to press and mail CDs to students,” Zimmerman-Bence says. “We had to maintain an inventory of CDs, making sure that we kept an exact number of copies so that we wouldn’t violate our licensing agreements. We would often have to walk the students through the open source downloads and installations, which was also very time-consuming. And then we had to provide some level of remote technical support for them with a small staff. It was a logistical nightmare.”
“[Cloud computing] has been a huge relief to us. Student work doesn’t reside on computers anymore. All the applications and data are stored in the cloud. No more CDs. No more downloads. And if a laptop dies or gets stolen, student work isn’t lost.”
About a year ago, MNOHS began looking for a better way. In the spring, the school launched a pilot program to test a system designed to move its entire operation to the cloud. It was then, ironically, that the skies began to clear.
“It has been a huge relief to us,” Zimmerman-Bence says. “Student work doesn’t reside on computers anymore. All the applications and data are stored in the cloud. No more CDs. No more downloads. And if a laptop dies or gets stolen, student work isn’t lost.
“I’m exaggerating, of course, when I say that cloud computing saved our school, but I’m positive it saved the sanity of our systems administrator.”
If you’re not exactly sure what Zimmerman- Bence is talking about, don’t feel bad. Cloud computing generated such early buzz that the term took off before anyone had bothered to clearly define it (see “Demystifying the ‘Cloud,’” page 26). If you’ve ever found yourself sitting through a dry-erase-board presentation during which the speaker draws a literal cloud to represent the internet, with lines radiating out to rows of boxes representing servers, PCs, cell phones, or other end-point devices, you’ve seen the origin of “the cloud.”
The basic idea behind cloud computing is this: All or part of your IT infrastructure, data storage, and software-application deployments live on off-site servers maintained by outside providers, and which users access through a web browser. The Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud is a well-known example. The EC2 virtual computing environment uses web services to provide what Amazon calls “resizeable compute capacity in the cloud.” Essentially, customers rent server space; if they need more capacity, they can scale up—or down—more or less at will (hence, the descriptive elastic).
The EC2 might be thought of as an example of infrastructure in the cloud, or infrastructure as a service (IaaS). The in-the-cloud model also works for software development platforms (platform as a service, or PaaS), examples of which include the Google App Engine and Salesforce.com’s Force.com. Both provide cloud-based platforms on which software developers write their applications. Then there are applications in the cloud, which refers to things like Google Apps and Wikipedia, which are apps accessed via a web browser. Software as a service (SaaS) is a similar model, but the provider licenses a particular web-accessed application to a customer.
This apps-in-the-cloud model in particular seems to be generating a new level of interest in cloud computing in educational circles. In their sixth annual Horizon Report, researchers at the New Media Consortium, an international association of organizations that explores the potential educational uses of new technologies, found that the growing menu of cloud-based applications is causing “a shift in the way we think about how we use software.”
“The idea of data storage as something that can be separated from an individual computer is not unusual,” they write, “but now it is becoming common to consider applications in the same light. Instead of locking files and software inside a single computer, we are gradually moving both the products of our work and the tools we use to accomplish it into the cloud.”
And therein lies the value of this computing model to K-12 schools. In his blog, Thomas Bittman, vice president and distinguished analyst at technology research firm Gartner, explains that cloud computing, with its deemphasizing of fancy hardware, has the ability to do away with the digital divide:
“All that is needed,” he wrote, “is a cheap access device and a web browser, broadband in the schools, perhaps wireless hotspots. While equitable access to technology is clearly important, more and more students already have some kind of access device—a laptop, an iPod. The district needs to fill the gaps, not replace existing access devices.”
SITESEEING: nmc.org/publications/ 2009-horizon-k12-report: The New Media Consortium’s 2009 Horizon Report, which examines the emerging technologies that are likely to make a big impact on teaching and learning in the next few years.
Lightening the Load
Getting a school’s applications and data into the cloud means that its access devices—desktop computers, laptops, handhelds, etc.—can be much less sophisticated and much easier to maintain, says Lisa Clark, vice president at Durham, NC-based Simtone, a provider of cloud computing services.
“With a cloud-based system, you don’t have to worry as much about your students’ lost, stolen, crunched, or fried computers,” Clark says. “No hard-drive malfunctions to deal with. No lost computing files or data. No CD-drive breakage or bad track reads. No OS reboots. The blue screen of death never appears. No black screens with strange and scary code. No endless uploads, downloads, upgrades, or storage. No stacks of app boxes taking up space in a closet.”
All of which sounded pretty good to Zimmerman-Bence when he started talking with Simtone back in December.
“We were looking at a few other options,” he says. “Managing backups and provisioning laptops were the two biggest problems plaguing us. We looked at a number of solutions, including a flash drive-based system that wasn’t much better in the final analysis than the CDs. But this cloud technology seemed to solve our problems. And the technology looked very solid; they’re essentially streaming an entire PC desktop over a wireless router without much latency.”
In May, MNOHS became one of the first schools to take Simtone’s new Education Thunder Program for a test drive. The company’s first major K-12 initiative aims to provide students and teachers with access to full “PCs in the cloud,” which will contain their coursework, homework, school services, personal files, and other education materials. Virtualized desktops are stored on remote servers instead of on the end-user devices, and all programs, applications, processes, and data are run centrally, which allows users to access their desktops from any web-enabled device.
MNOHS began testing the service with a pilot program involving 20 student computers, including laptop and desktop machines running Windows Vista, Windows XP, and Mac OS, Zimmerman-Bence says. At the same time, the school’s systems engineer began using the cloud platform as her full-time work environment. Each of the virtualized desktops was preloaded with what Zimmerman-Bence calls “course-crucial software,” including Microsoft Office, The Geometer’s Sketchpad, Fathom Dynamic Data, and Adobe Premiere Elements.
Demystifying the ‘Cloud’
The object of much exuberant discussion, the term is not quite as confounding as you might think.
It’s hard to find a technology company of any size that hasn’t jumped into the cloud with some kind of initiative. Unfortunately, the cloud is one of those high-tech concepts that vendor marketing groups jumped on with such voraciousness, the hyperbole left no room for a plain understanding of what the term actually means.
Fortunately, researchers at the New Media Consortium (nmc.org) offer some clarity here. They classify cloud computing services into three types: 1) single-function cloud-based applications accessed via a web browser (Gmail, Quicken Online), which use the cloud for processing power and data storage; 2) cloud infrastructures on which software developers build and host cloud apps (Google App Engine, Joyent); and 3) cloud services that offer “sheer computing resources without a development platform layer” (Amazon’s Elastic Compute Cloud, GoGrid).
Thorsten von Eicken, CTO and founder of Santa Barbara, CA-based RightScale (rightscale.com), a company that specializes in the management of cloud deployments, argues that the meaning of the cloud isn’t as misty as it once was.
“People act like cloud computing is this big, mysterious thing, ill-defined, amorphous, and, well, cloudy,” von Eicken says. “But computer-savvy folks have a pretty good idea of what the term means. Cloud computing is the provisioning of dynamically scalable resources as a service over a network. It’s outsourced computing—pay-as-you-go, on-demand, rented usage from a third-party provider.”
Von Eicken says that he’s seen a significant change this year in the overall perception of cloud computing in almost every industry. “In 2007, we saw the early adopters and garage startups and just a few large users. In 2008, we saw more established smaller companies come to the cloud. And 2009 has really seen top-down interest in a cloud strategy in just about every industry vertical.”
One thing that cloud computing isn’t, says Lisa Clark, vice president at cloud services provider Simtone (simtone.net), is another form of client-server computing.
“The biggest difference is probably scalability,” she says. “The cloud is incredibly flexible. But also, it’s the nature of the devices through which end users of cloud services are accessing their information. We’re not just talking about desktops anymore, but every mobile device, every wall screen, every kiosk—everywhere a user has a screen, a keyboard, and a network connection.”
“The students still need access to a computer,” Zimmerman-Bence says, “but this cloud model mitigates that by requiring much simpler and cheaper computers. Our students don’t need the latest ThinkPad to participate; they can get by with a netbook, or even a clunky old machine stashed in their parents’ garage. In fact, they don’t absolutely have to own a computer if they have reliable access to the internet from machines in public libraries or digital cafes. Because it’s all online, all they really need is a fast connection and a machine that will run a web browser.”
Online schools such as MNOHS often find themselves at the bleeding edge of information technology innovations, which Zimmerman-Bence maintains can be a good place to be if you want to influence the evolution of the technology.
“One of the great things about being on the bleeding edge is that we’ve been able to inform Simtone about what we need,” he says, “and they’ve been very responsive to that. Being an online school, our enrollments can be quite fluid between semesters. We have to be able to turn on and turn off licenses for certain software titles fairly quickly. So we’ve been working with Simtone to develop an administrative interface that will help us provision laptops so that if a student starts off in, say, a media arts class but then drops out, we can turn off the software the moment he drops that class. But he’ll still have his environment so that if he decides to switch to music we can turn on that software just as quickly.”
Zimmerman-Bence says that his school will be rolling out the cloud-computing service to more students later this year, hopefully with that administrative interface.
A Trust Issue
Cloud computing didn’t exactly save her district, but Kim Cronin Bunchuck, technology director for the Greenport Union Free School District in Long Island, NY, says that it rescued it from losing “a bucket of money.” Her definition of the cloud is to the point: “If you don’t have to install it, maintain it, or upgrade it, it’s in the cloud,” she says. So is her summary of cloud computing’s main benefit to K-12: “As soon as you install software on your machines, whether they’re desktops or servers, you’re responsible for maintaining it; once you put that software in the cloud, that’s no longer your problem.”
“As soon as you install software on your machines, whether they’re desktops or servers, you’re responsible for maintaining it; once you put that software in the cloud, that’s no longer your problem.”
Greenport is a small district, serving about 625 K-12 students, all in one building. But even a small district needs e-mail, and Greenport had for years been providing that service with Microsoft’s popular Exchange Server messaging system, which includes a mail server, an e-mail program, and groupware applications.
But Exchange proved to be a “needy” system, Cronin Bunchuck says, requiring a lot of maintenance time, and the licensing costs were a burden for the district, 50 percent of whose students qualify for the free- or reduced-lunch program. The straw that broke the budget landed in 2007, when the United States, Canada, and a few other countries decided to extend daylight saving time. Exchange had been programmed with the old start and end dates, and Microsoft wanted $8,000 to adjust them.
“For a small district it was just a ridiculous expense,” Cronin Bunchuck says. “That’s when I realized that maintaining our own equipment didn’t make sense anymore, especially with what I knew was available in the cloud.”
She convinced the district to allow her to test a cloud application, Google’s Gmail, as a potential replacement for Exchange. “Luckily, I was a technology director, so I could do more than just theorize about cloud computing in K-12,” she says. “And my district gave me the support to give it a try.”
Greenport signed up for the free Education Edition of Google Apps, which allows school districts to mix and match a suite of web-based applications. That suite includes Gmail, Google Talk for instant messaging, Google Calendar, Google Docs, and the Google Sites website builder. For its trial run, the district settled on a combination of Gmail and Google Docs.
For the first two school years of the pilot program, Cronin Bunchuck ran Gmail and Exchange in parallel, setting up a new district domain name with the Google service while leaving the state-supplied domain name pointing at the Exchange server. Over this past Labor Day weekend, she pointed the state domain name at the Google service and shut down Exchange.
“I took advantage of the fact that Gmail allows you to point both domains to one mailbox,” Cronin Bunchuck says. “Our Google e-mail now answers to two names, but by running the two services in parallel I was able to see if there were any problems. There were none. It’s been more than a year now and we’re still in the cloud.”
Gmail was immediately accepted by the district’s faculty and staff, Cronin Bunchuck says (“Some of my teachers and administrators haven’t even noticed”), but Google Docs has been a bit harder to deploy.
“I’d like to have our documents completely in the cloud, but it’s taking some work to make that change. The program is there, but the teachers aren’t really using it. I think it’s safe to say that the cloud looks to many educators like a loss of control. The change will come from the students, especially the ones who don’t have computers at home. They know that if it’s in the cloud, they can go to the public library and pull up their work. If it’s here on the network, they can only get to it when they’re at school.”
Cloud computing does demand trust in the service provider, says Zimmerman-Bence, and that’s going to be a big adjustment for some educators. “The first thing that scares people about cloud computing is the idea of putting all their data ‘out there,’” he says. “‘Cloud’ turns out not to be the best metaphor if you want to reassure people that their data is in a safe place.”
Simtone’s Clark agrees, but sees that concern as a kind of cognitive disconnect. “This anxiety about the cloud is interesting,” she says. “Our research shows that students in existing and pilot 1-to-1 programs report spending 40 percent of their school week online, using their computer.My daughter says that she goes online to use Compass Learning’s Odyssey program every day. There’s Holt Online Learning, BrainPop, Mind Meister, Accelerated Math and Reader, Beyond Books—these are all web-based apps that students are already using. And the rest of us shop online and do our banking online.
“The truth is, we’re all already in the cloud.”
This article originally appeared in the January 2010 issue of THE Journal.