Moving to the Cloud: Myths and Facts
“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.
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.
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
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
“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
Reality: Mostly fact, though with a few
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
“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.”
“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.”
“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
Reality: Some truth; some myth. It really
depends on the offering.
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).
Thuan Nguyen, assistant superintendent and chief digital strategy officer for the
Kent (WA) School District, offers these suggestions for making the most of your
■ 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.