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Technology (Enhancing + Engaging + Connecting)

What Kind of Cloud Are You Getting?

There are many benefits to using cloud-based services, but local infrastructure still plays an important part in making effective use of those services.

As a kid growing up in the Midwest where you could see great distances, I quickly learned what type of weather the clouds were bringing in — was it going to be a lazy summer day or would it be one that was filled with winds and rain? Looking carefully at cloud-based services to find out what is in them before planning service transitions will save you significant time and headaches later. Software as a Service (SaaS) is making a number of things easier for all of us. Outsourcing email is one of the best examples — 20 years ago, we needed to rely on a local mail server. When the server went down, or the data connection to it was down, all hope was lost. Now, we can easily check our mail from everywhere when using a cloud-based software service. At the risk of jinxing our office, we used to have an email outage what seemed like every month. Now, I have to think back months to our last email outage.

Cloud-based Services

PHOTO COURTESY OF BOB MICAL

It has been reported that over 90 percent of K-12 schools use at least one cloud-based device, and 80 percent of this group has formal written plans for expansion. The two most common reasons why you should include outsourcing to the cloud is that it is more cost effective, allowing cost reductions in both local staff and hardware; and there is the ability to adapt and bring online new programs and systems at the most basic level, which would not otherwise be cost effective using traditional services or software. One of the most common usage models is accessing the cloud for a portion of the educational content for a class. Another common use is sharing homework, student progress, grades and communication with parents or guardians.

Despite the benefits that cloud-based services provide, it is important to remember that these services are still dependent on local infrastructure, and are still susceptible to the challenges of security and connection speed. Speed is the easiest to address. Bandwidth is a measure of how fast data can be moved, and is both an internal and external issue. What happens when the entire class is told to open their virtual books up to page 95 for the next assignment? Is the campus Internet connection robust enough to support the multimedia downloads? Is the classroom connection fast enough to not slow down the lesson plan?

The “speed” into the building will be limited by the infrastructure found in the surrounding community. While many take incoming bandwidth for granted, it is still the primary challenge of many of our institutions. While fiber optic access may be common for schools in larger communities, a majority of rural communities are still limited to copper. This means the connection is slower and the amount of data that can be quickly transmitted is limited. The same amount of bandwidth across a copper connection is often much more expensive than is available across fiber, and in some cases, is not possible to achieve over copper. The costs of Internet bandwidth should be factored into any strategy involving cloud-based services. Solutions to increase bandwidth where connection speed is limited may include bandwidth aggregation or “bonding”, but this may require more sophisticated (translate: more expensive) hardware. These capital expenses should also be factored into any strategy.

Within our buildings, we often look for wired network connections for workstations. For the tablet and laptop solutions used in schools, a wireless mesh or grid is essential. One or two access points per building are not enough. Each access point is limited by its wired connection to the building infrastructure, wireless coverage area, as well as a limit to the practical number of simultaneous users. When all of the students in a classroom attempt to join a single access point, having everybody open page 95 will be take what seems like the entire period. We used to be able to plan for each classroom as its’ own hot spot, but now with the increased number of mobile data devices in the building we need to create a mesh or grid for the wireless data to live on.

This is part of the “bricks and mortar” planning of the building infrastructure. network/Internet access is not a service that can be pushed up to the cloud. The number of wireless access points in our designs is based on; (1) the number of devices that we expect in an area, (2) distance to those devices, and (3) how much data we expect the devices to download at the same time. This always means multiple access points. Configuration and management of multiple access points can be relatively complex, and benefits from central a central management system that can define and adjust the configuration of multiple access points at the same time. One of the products we look to for educational institutions is Ubiquiti Networks. Their access points cost substantially less than other leading commercial brands and their management software is much easier to operate. This results in a quicker setup of the building’s wireless mesh. Once set up and devices are authenticated to the mesh, the device can then move throughout the building or campus effortlessly.

By implementing cloud-based user authentication and permissions, IT staff can more easily manage and update multiple devices and those devices do not need to have a hard-wired connection to the server to retrieve updates. This applies to both updates to software as well as security access including management of passwords and access to data. Cloud-based security can help defend against threats like password phishing, weak passwords and password re-use. Most major cloud-based systems also support single sign-on, which means that users can use one username/password combination to authenticate to a wireless network, log onto a local network domain and to access one or more cloud services.

Another benefit of cloud solutions is the storage and retrieval of data. Many cloud storage providers now provide tools to check for data redundancy, eliminating multiple copies of the same file and reducing overall data storage requirements. With cloud-based file access, a teacher can easily access photos, video clips, lesson plans or a student’s grades — regardless of their location — at the school, in the library or at home. Since cloud providers have system redundancy as part of their offering, the potential of data loss from a hard drive crash, fire or natural disaster is substantially reduced. No longer does the IT department need to worry about the safety of students’ records as a result of data loss. Evaluation of a service provider’s security procedures, privacy policies, privacy compliance and reputation is necessary however, to ensure that the privacy of files and records is maintained.

The good and the bad news is that one size does not fit all. Many cloud providers have a pay-as-you-go model, so it may seem easy to also customize the solution as-you-go. Cloud providers are inherently more careful with feature upgrades, since the feature you request would typically need to be applied to a large percentage of their cloud customers.

The old adage still applies — proper prior planning prevents pitiful poor performance. The initial and continued move to cloud solutions will benefit from advance planning and many institutions are implementing the solution over time, jumping in with teaching solutions and adding data storage and record keeping as-they-go.

This article originally appeared in the January 2014 issue of School Planning & Management.