Moving to the Cloud: Myths and Facts

2/25/2013 By:

“There are not many new ideas when it comes to technology. Instead, there’s a lot of rebranding,” says Thuan Nguyen, assistant superintendent and chief digital strategy officer for the Kent (WA) School District. “The cloud is a re-branded version of hosted services, which is just a re-branded mainframe philosophy. With each new version we add features or modify the infrastructure to do more. At the core, though, the premise is the same.” Still, districts need to know the facts before migrating everything to the cloud. SchoolCIO spoke with some experts to get the scoop.

Assumption #1:

Moving to the cloud will save your district money.

“Moving to the cloud can result in financial savings, but it depends on what you are moving from. With 11,000 devices and 21,000 students, we have a lot invested in software. We’re moving to Google Apps for Education, but we’re starting from scratch. There will be less work in IT since there’s nothing to install on computers and no servers, but it will take money and effort to get there.” —David Andrade, CIO of Bridgeport (CT) Public Schools

“We moved our Exchange server to the MS Outlook 365 platform and got rid of servers, which saved us money and took an administrative burden off our hands. Google Apps for Business and Microsoft offer these products free for educational purposes, which is great.” —Ross Ellicott, interim director of technology at Brick Township (NJ) School District

“We saved on storage and servers because most of the servers that run apps on the cloud are hosted outside of the district. Since the cloud is centralized and browser-based, it lets us save a lot of time by doing things centrally. Also, we no longer have to back up our servers every night so we save on storage and staff time.” —John Alawneh, executive director of technology for Austin (TX) Independent School District

Reality: Mostly truth. While your district can save money in the long run by going to the cloud, you may need to spend additional funds to beef up your infrastructure.

Assumption #2:

Cloud environments have the potential to transform business and operating models.

“You have to change your operating model when you transition to the cloud. In the first phase, you use your own servers, and you must build, maintain, and support them. In phase two, as you convert to the cloud, you need to think about the security and connectivity. How are accounts handled off site? You need to ensure that the data you send to the cloud is secure and accessible. You may also have to push back on the cloud vendor if you don’t want to send all your data. Phase three is when you are fully converted. At this phase, you have to plan for a transition of staffing skills to take advantage of that.” —Thuan Nguyen

“Cloud storage helps business overcome the traditional divide between network, storage, and server provisioning by automating all of these disciplines and offering entire application environments and business services in a self-service manner. This enables the business or school to respond much faster to new requirements. Eventually, application environments will be entirely abstracted from the underlying hardware and become disposable. This will enable businesses and schools to stand up and tear down applications and services even faster.” —Torsten Volk, senior analyst at Enterprise Management Associates (www.enterprisemanagement.com), an IT and data management research and consulting firm.

“Moving to the cloud has helped us stay out of the server room, but we’re also looking for cloud-based solutions. When a new app is presented that has a strong following from our faculty and community, I don’t want to hear about CD-ROMs or deploying it to 1,000 computers. We’re looking to hear that it is online. For BYOD and mobile learning, it has to be online and unbuckled.” —Ross Ellicott

“It’s a huge transformation. You go from a device- and OS-centric environment into an OS-agnostic environment. We support four browsers now, which is a completely different support model that’s sustainable and allows us to let people BYOD.” —John Alawneh

Reality: Fact.

Assumption #3:

It’s crazy to run your core IT services using cloud technology.

“Most schools are running their financial systems, assessments, survey tools, and emails over the cloud already because it’s where you’ll get the most value. They are the best ones to leverage because they have a long history of working in that environment. If you run those core processes in the cloud, it frees up your staff to focus on things that have a larger impact in the classroom.” —Thuan Nguyen

“It depends on what you’re doing, what you’ve set up, how much data you have, and how you manage your legacy software. If I were at a smaller district, I’d use Google Apps and not host any software. But don’t forget about your SIS. Can you move that to the cloud? If so, what will it take?” —David Andrade

“If you define core IT services as email, calendaring, and collaboration, I couldn’t have been happier to get that out of our server room. But when it comes to security, I’d say no. I don’t think cloud offerings are mature enough to put our budget information and bank accounts there—yet.” —Ross Ellicott

“It’s crazy not to! I can’t imagine any vendor who wants to stay in the market that would stay away from software-as-a-service. It’s proven to be cost-effective for both the vendor and customer. I don’t want to worry about servers, backups, and upgrades.” —John Alawneh

Reality: Mostly fact, though with a few caveats.

Assumption #4:

The cloud is safer, more secure, and more reliable than a traditional IT environment.

“A lot of people worry about access to data when the Internet is down. We have a huge data center with dedicated fiber lines to every building. Our Internet comes through the state and that goes down. The reliability of your Internet connection can be an issue. You need to have a lot of backups.” —David Andrade

“Just because you’re going to the cloud doesn’t mean you wash your hands of your obligations of record retention and backups. Those services are layered on top of the basic cloud services, not offered, or you have to add them yourself. Be clear about what you need when you go into an agreement and review the cloud provider’s contracts. Don’t assume it’s their job.” —Thuan Nguyen

“Public cloud offerings are often better managed than a small data center where staff has to wear many hats. Generally, there can be security breaches in any IT environment. For a public cloud, it is essential to read the service-level agreements and ensure the terms and conditions are in line with the school’s legal obligations. From a reliability perspective, public clouds are often better managed and more redundant than private clouds or traditional private data centers. However, it is important to evaluate both security and reliability on a per-case basis.” —Torsten Volk

“We are about to roll out a cloud-based curriculum. For about a week in early February, they had a DDoS (distributed denial of service) attack, and we could not offer their program.” —Ross Ellicott

“Traditionally, when we needed to provide access to our services, we had to add you to the network as a node. Then you were inside my firewall and on my network. You could bring in bad stuff and intrude into other apps. With the cloud, you are never on our network.” —John Alawneh

Reality: Some truth; some myth. It really depends on the offering.

Assumption #5:

Private clouds* make more sense for schools than public clouds.

“There could be a third solution, where schools share a data center and install a multitenant, semi-private cloud. This model could offer the best of both worlds: adherence to regulatory compliance and economies of scale. Of course, this type of cloud, just like a private cloud, could still benefit from public cloud resources, such as Amazon EC2. For example, a large multimedia library could be moved to much cheaper Amazon storage.” —Torsten Volk

“Depending on the service or app, some things make sense to be in public and others make sense for private uses. We have a large virtual server farm and back up our data center here and across town. But we also send hundreds of gigs to an offsite company.” —Ross Ellicott

“We incorporate Google and Live@edu as part of our own private cloud. Some of our storage is local; some is public. We consider each application and choose the right option for us.” —John Alawneh

Reality: Like #4, this one is both true and false, depending on the situation.

*Private cloud: The applications, data, and infrastructure are dedicated to a single party that retains direct management oversight.

*Public cloud: The data and applications of non-related parties may reside on the same servers and are more likely to be primarily managed by a third party.

CoSN Report on Cloud Security and Privacy

If your district is a member of the Consortium for School Networking (CoSN), check out “Security and Privacy of Cloud Computing,” a report with information on strengthening your networks and protecting against threats. Download the report at EdTechNext Reports (www.cosn.org/EdTechNext).

Quick Tips

Thuan Nguyen, assistant superintendent and chief digital strategy officer for the Kent (WA) School District, offers these suggestions for making the most of your cloud experience:

■ If someone is trying to sell you on a cloud offering, ask for a list of districts that currently use it. Their experience can inform you and help you come up with questions you might not have thought to ask.

■ Don’t assume that because it’s in the cloud it will have a higher level of up time than what you can provide internally. Before we consider a cloud offering, I have the server added to Pingdom (www.pingdom.com), a service we use that monitors up time for systems and Web sites.

■ Use Pingdom or a similar tool to collect data so you know when these services are likely to go down. Does the company inform you of when it is doing maintenance? Some cloud providers take services down at 11 am on a weekday for 30 minutes.

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