Cloud Computing and K12

Stevin Smith, Executive Director of IT, Gilbert Public Schools
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Stevin Smith, Executive Director of IT, Gilbert Public Schools

Cloud computing has now matured to the point that it is no longer considered especially innovative. Consumer-level computing is now almost exclusively cloud-based and businesses have also embraced the cloud for mission-critical enterprise applications. One sector that continues to lag behind, however, is K-12 education. While some forward thinking districts and technology leaders have made cloud computing a strategic priority, others continue to maintain a legacy environment of dedicated infrastructure running traditional software out of a district-owned data center. And this is happening at the same time that teachers and students are increasingly using cloud-based applications in the classroom, often without any technology oversight of any kind. While there are many reasons given for resisting the cloud, these are, for the most part, no longer valid. Instead, the K-12 sector should be making the cloud a strategic priority and a lever for making IT services more responsive to the needs of administrators, teachers and students.

“The K-12 sector should be making the cloud a strategic priority and a lever for making IT services more responsive to the needs of administrators, teachers and students”

The concept of cloud computing has been around for decades. Salesforce.com was an early entrant, launching a cloud-based sales and customer management system in 1999. Amazon launched Amazon Web Services in 2002. Countless other companies and products have entered the market since those early days and today there is a robust market for cloud services. There are different ways to segment the players, but there are generally three types of cloud computing models most relevant to the K-12 sector:

• Infrastructure as a Service provides the ability to rent computing capacity in a third-party data-center, often with the ability to self-provision virtual servers, storage and network services. In this model, users continue to manage the infrastructure and use it to run applications and store data. Abbreviated as IaaS, this type of cloud computing can save hardware costs and some of the costs of supporting the hardware as compared to a traditional computing environment. Amazon, Rackspace and GoGrid are three examples of IaaS providers.

• Platform as a Service is an evolutionary step above Infrastructure as a Service and provides customers the ability to leverage pre-configured environments for developing and deploying applications. Both Microsoft and Google provide PaaS models that allow for the extension of the Azure and Google Apps platforms, respectively, for the development of new functionality, without the customer having to deploy hardware and software.

• Software as a Service allows customers to acquire applications without the need to make any investment in infrastructure, typically by paying a per-user license fee. This model can provide the lowest cost for customers as it eliminates investment in hardware, support and maintenance. SaaS providers also have the greatest opportunity to leverage scale to reduce costs in a way that is impossible in other traditional and cloud deployment scenarios. Almost every application that school districts use can be purchased today in a SaaS model, including student information systems, financial and HR systems.

K-12 organizations have the most to gain by turning to Software as a Service as the primary vehicle for acquisition of application functionality. This model provide the greatest return on investment while also allowing for a responsiveness to needs that other models cannot provide.

Ironically, some of the reasons given for opposing cloud computing are the same reasons that districts and schools are adopting it. Security and privacy concerns are often cited as reasons not to utilize cloud computing, but in reality, when dealing with reputable providers, cloud computing is more secure and provides greater privacy protections than it is possible to deliver with internal infrastructure and applications. Cloud providers, with the advantage of scale and strong market incentives, are able to better manage external threats to data and can provide contracted service level agreements for data protection and backup. For example, by default, Google Apps for Education keeps copies of user data in multiple locations, providing for a high degree of fault tolerance, something that is complicated and expensive for districts to do on their own. Likewise, some IT leaders will claim that maintaining local infrastructure and applications provides for a high level of control and while that can be true in some specific cases, more often this local control comes at a high cost that in turn results in a lack of control. Local infrastructure and applications can lock a district in and make it difficult to change when necessary. Finding people who can effectively manage sophisticated infrastructure is a challenge in any industry - it is especially difficult in school districts with lean budgets.

The value of cloud computing for K-12 districts, particularly when deployed in the Software as a Service model, is a combination of scalability, resilience, security and cost savings. When a school district no longer has to worry about the hardware infrastructure necessary to support the computing environment, those resources are able to focus instead on supporting the teachers and students. This combination can be powerful - dollars saved on infrastructure can be reinvested in other areas, while the added flexibility can support classroom innovations from small pilots to large scale deployments. This in turn allows for more accurate planning and budgeting. Given the mature state of the market, the availability of proven K-12 applications and the benefits provided, school districts need to make cloud computing a focus of the technology strategic plan.

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