Cloud Computing: Do More With Less

Cloud computing does not have to be a cloudy subject for school district administrators. In fact, it can be a clear way to enhance the reach and effectiveness of 21st-century facilities. Grab some sunglasses, and check out the benefits and the facts.

Cloud computing is about data that is stored and accessed remotely as opposed to being stored and accessed on your personal hard drive. The application and your data are stored on third-party servers, which makes the information accessible anywhere and any time via a computer and Internet access.

There are three main types of cloud computing: Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS). SaaS is the most widely used type of cloud computing, and it is just as its name suggests: software applications are hosted by a service provider and are available to subscribers across the Internet.

Benefits: The Sky’s the Limit
Cloud computing’s sunshine comes through the benefits it provides school district administrators in terms of leveraging their business processes. Here are three.

1. Accessibility: “You no longer have to be at your desk or even on campus to manage your workload,” says Jill Judd, web content specialist for SchoolDude.com. The Cary, N.C.-based Software as a Service (SaaS) provider offers IT, facilities and business operations solutions. This is beneficial for school districts, which have multiple school sites. “It allows for a more hands-on approach to issue resolution and fewer problems that end up lost in translation,” she says.

Accessibility may be impeded if there is a lack or loss of Internet access, which would prevent you from accessing your data. This risk is minimal when balanced by the fact that we live in an increasingly wireless world so that, if Internet access is lost at the office or in your home, your data can still be accessed via a laptop and Internet access from a neighboring district or even a local coffee shop.

The ability to store data in the cloud means the data is always accessible, and it means an end to the risk of losing your data if your hard drive dies. When choosing a service provider, it is important to ensure the firm has your data both backed up and secure. It means you have to know your security requirements and how your internal capabilities compare to those of the cloud provider.

“There are two things to address when storing data,” says Fadi Albatal, vice president of Marketing for FalconStor Software, with offices worldwide, which provides data protection and storage virtualization solutions. “The first is making sure the data is secure and not accessible by other parties. Any data that is shipped to the cloud has to be secured and maintained in a way that is guaranteeing the authenticity of the data and that the records are tamper-proof. The second one is data has to be encrypted so that, if someone were to get hold of my credentials and access my dedicated resources within the cloud, I still have a level of security in place so that the data can’t be tampered with or understood.”

While your service provider will have a certain level of security in place, it is not a substitute for your ensuring that your data is safe. “It has to be a joint effort,” says Whitney Roberts, enterprise platform manager for Jefferson County Public Schools in Kentucky. “Yes, we’re paying for the service, and that should include security, but we have a fiduciary responsibility to make sure we’re not handing the keys to the kingdom to an organization that could be gone tomorrow. Cloud offerings bring a lot to the table, but you have to know your data and who you can trust.”

2. Efficiency: “On-demand online collaboration tools and workflow processes unlock the ability to do things that previously took several tedious steps with client server side systems,” says Judd.

For example, in the case of work order submission, maintenance personnel can visit a site where there is an issue and take notes or capture images that are immediately attached to an open work order. Work orders can be opened and closed on site, as opposed to receiving a work order in the office, going to the site to look at it and make the repair and then returning to the office to close it out.

Efficiencies are also gained in that cloud services support easier integration of two companies or software platforms. “For example,” says Judd, “SchoolDude and Johnson Controls have come together to provide an integration that allows schools to manage their Building Automation System (BAS) from one location instead of two, avoiding double entry.” In this case, one company’s scheduling platform “talks” with the other company’s BAS to let it know when to run and shut off systems through a district, including lighting or HVAC. This efficiency results in time and energy savings.

3. Financial savings: Cloud computing means administrators can host software and data through the cost of a subscription, as opposed to investing in software (that needs continual upgrading) and servers (that are expensive). Administrators no longer have to deal directly with many IT requirements, such as software, storage and updates.

“I love that my provider updates and improves the service continuously without my having to do anything,” says Scott Kennedy, director of Operations for Central Bucks School District (CBSD) in Doylestown, Pa. Right now, CBSD is using cloud computing to provide facility services, such as preventive maintenance, inventory management, utility/energy management and capital planning. “I don’t have to worry about buying upgraded software, installing it or how I’m going to pay for it. It frees me to focus on my core responsibilities.”

Just as cloud computing allows Kennedy to focus on his core responsibilities, it allows IT staff to focus on theirs. Translation: cloud computing doesn’t mean the loss of IT staff. It does mean that, because tedious tasks are offloaded to the cloud, IT staff can work on innovative education programs.

Albatal notes two additional financial values to cloud computing. The first is that it has a low entry point because the cost is amortized across the subscribers. “The primary reason anyone looks at the cloud is for the shared cost,” he notes. The second value is the ability to receive specialized skills you otherwise may not have within your organization and may not have the financial ability to acquire.

Down to Earth Examples
CBSD administrators started using SaaS in approximately 2004. “We started with two products from SchoolDude,” says Kennedy. The first is MaintenanceDirect, which provides maintenance management, and the second is PMDirect, which provides preventive maintenance.”

After taking about a year getting both of those applications established and running well, the district added InventoryDirect, which provides inventory management. “With just over 20,000 students in 21 buildings, we are a large district and store almost all our products, so it made sense for us,” Kennedy says.

Eventually, the district added UtilityDirect, which provides utility/energy management, and PlanningDirect, which provides capital planning.

“With these programs,” says Kennedy, “you demo a product. If you like it, you activate it. Getting started is really easy, and that’s one thing we like about them. In addition, they’re priced according to school enrollment, so they’re advantageous for smaller school districts.”

Kennedy admits that, when he and his team was first starting out with SaaS, he was concerned about how difficult it would be to get everything up and running, including entering data and training staff to use the system. “It wasn’t that difficult,” he recalls. “It is user friendly, so even people with limited computer skills use it well. Plus, there was almost no effort as we added modules because the information was seamlessly pulled through.”

Jeffrey A. Bryan, PRSBO, director of Buildings and Grounds for Red Lion Area School District (RLASD) in Pennsylvania, started using SaaS programs with the same firm Kennedy uses just three months ago. He’s using PMDirect, MaintenanceDirect, UtilityDirect, FSDirect (event management) and CriticalAlarmAutomation (building automation alarm and work order integration). “My concerns were learning the programs personally and then my staff’s ability to learn them,” he says. “I didn’t have concerns about connectivity or information tracking, as most of my counterparts in the county had already adopted these programs.”

Bryan is already seeing the benefits. “Everyone is more conscious of the time it takes to complete a job. It is efficient to look at information live on the web and know where specific projects stand. I know PMDirect will keep us both on task and on schedule with preventive maintenance, so we’ll reduce emergency calls and expenses.”

There are many benefits to cloud computing, and it’s important to remember that your SaaS subscription is not just accessing technology at a reasonable price anywhere and anytime. It’s about what’s behind the subscription — customer service and support; timely, user-friendly and intelligent upgrades; and everyday value — that allows you to enhance the reach and effectiveness of your facilities. 

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