Cloud Computing | Feature

Defining the Cloud

The easiest way to understand the cloud is to think of it as a utility, like electricity. When you plug a device into a wall outlet, electricity flows. You didn’t generate the electricity yourself. In fact, you probably have no idea where the electricity was generated. It’s just there when you want it. And all you care about is that your device works.

Cloud computing works on the same principle. Through a network connection (the equivalent of an electrical outlet), you can access whatever applications, files, or data you have opted to store in the cloud--anytime, anywhere, from any device. How it gets to you and where it’s stored are not your concern (well, for most people it's not).

The potential benefits of such a system are enormous. To stick with the electricity analogy, if your IT department is still pre-cloud, it’s running the equivalent of its own generator. And with that comes a load of responsibility: Generators break, they run out of fuel, they need to be serviced, and--if demand for power increases--new ones need to be bought.

The cloud frees IT from the tech equivalent of all that. Because, just like power companies, cloud providers are the ones who are responsible for all maintenance, infrastructure, and repair. They are responsible for meeting surges in demand, and ensuring that service is reliable.

The analogy to electricity is a little simplistic, because cloud computing actually represents more than one type of service. Indeed, it might be more appropriate to compare cloud computing to all the utilities hooked up to your house: electricity, water, and gas. In the case of cloud computing, there are three basic types of service: software as a service (SaaS); infrastructure as a service (IaaS); and platform as a service (PaaS). At this point, PaaS is not used much in K-12 districts, so we will not describe it in detail.

Software as a Service
Ever used Gmail? How about Yahoo Mail? If so, you’ve used software as a service. In fact, many school districts have been using the cloud for a long time without ever quite realizing it. For some reason, web-based applications like these haven’t registered with most people as being "cloud." Only when applications like Google Docs replace software that has traditionally been locked inside the PC do people seem to realize it has something to do with the cloud angle.

Quite simply, SaaS is a software application that is hosted in a central location and delivered via a web browser, app, or other thin client (see box). Rather than having to purchase and install the application on individual computers, a school simply pays a monthly subscription fee to a service provider. Users--whether students or employees--just log on to access the application.

To the end user, the experience is exactly the same as if the application were installed on the user’s hard drive or the district’s internal network. By having the application delivered as a service, however, students can work on assignments from any location; HR managers can do payroll from the comfort of their living rooms; teachers can work on lesson plans after hours. What’s more, users can use different devices without having to tote around thumb drives to transfer information, since the project is all stored in the cloud.

And, from an IT perspective, there’s a beautiful upside: No longer do you have to update software on machines scattered throughout your schools. No more patches, no databases tracking installs and software updates. And the nightmare of keeping track of software licenses? Gone.

Most often, SaaS is associated with business applications such as accounting, customer relationship management, and human resource management, but more consumer-focused applications are coming online all the time. Google paved the way with its popular Google Apps for Education, which has been adopted as the de facto business productivity suite by a number of school districts.

In late June, Microsoft rolled out Microsoft Office 365, which includes a cloud-based version of its popular Office suite, in addition to its Exchange e-mail and SharePoint collaboration application. Although the cloud-based offering is not yet available for the education market, Microsoft does offer a similar suite of tools via the cloud through its popular Live@edu service. At some point, the company plans to transition Live@edu to the Office 365 platform, although a date has not yet been set.

Infrastructure as a Service
Think of IaaS as an outsourced data center with benefits. And limitless capacity. Storage, hardware, servers, and networking are all owned by a third-party provider that is responsible for the maintenance, operations, and housing.

Billing is handled monthly using the utility model (remember the electricity analogy?). Just as the electric company has a meter on your house to measure usage, cloud providers meter your computing usage--and you pay only for what you use. So, instead of buying a server that might run at 15-percent capacity, for example, you pay only for the 15 percent you use.

This pay-as-you-go model can provide a tremendous cost advantage for school districts, which see demand for computing power wax and wane over time. Instead of buying, maintaining, and housing servers to meet those periods of peak demand, schools can use the cloud to scale up or down as needed, without the need to purchase any hardware themselves. It’s more efficient.

In the K-12 space, IaaS hasn’t caught on as quickly as it has in higher ed, simply because most school districts haven’t needed the on-demand computing power that IaaS provides. However, as more districts find themselves needing to update their infrastructure to meet the goals of 21st century learning, IaaS may emerge as a way to shift their infrastructure upgrade from the capital expenses column to operating expenses.

Platform as a Service
PaaS is a term used to describe a software-development platform that is stored in the cloud and can be accessed via a web browser. It makes a variety of programming languages, operating systems, and tools available to developers, saving them the cost of purchasing and installing everything themselves.
It’s important to understand that each development platform is different. If an institution develops its application on a closed PaaS platform, there is a danger of vendor lock-in, since it may not be easy to migrate to a different platform.

About the Authors

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

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