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Testing the Waters of Cloud Computing

Those high on this hot technology trend encourage school districts to experiment, as long as leaders heed some basic safeguards.

Suddenly, everyone in the IT world has their head in the clouds. While cloud computing isn't new, or terribly exotic (after all, virtualized services over the Internet have been available in some form for years), using it to run the business of a school district is new, and a potential sea change from the way most districts in the country now operate.

Some IT watchers are so high on the cloud promise that they would have you stop reading this story right now to sign your district up for these services. But others preach caution, saying that while benefits are definitely possible, pitfalls hover like sand traps waiting to penalize the overeager.

"The cloud provides incredible value to education. Between lowered energy costs, reduced IT costs, and better access to the educators' tools, it seems easy to embrace," one person posted to a Gartner Research blog about the technology's relationship to K-12 education. But of course he would take that stance: He works for a vendor that specializes in cloud computing solutions.

But Jim Reavis, the executive director of the Cloud Security Alliance, warns potential adopters not to be hasty. School districts, in his experience, aren't cut out to be pioneers in this field.

The Reliable Question
Cloud computing, in its simplest terms, is the concept of providing computing resources as an Internet service, with servers doing the heavy lifting of supporting applications instead of desktop PCs. For Ned Zimmerman-Bence, executive director of Minnesota Online High School, it boiled down to "changing the way we deliver technology with a more efficient pipe using cloud computing rather than setting up each individual computer. I don't think it's a perfect solution for every district out there," he adds, "but it's a great solution to have."

Other users sum it up in two words: Google Docs.

The free, web-based word processor with its collaboration capabilities represents exactly what cloud computing promises its users.

When Rick Bates, the IT director at Rapid City Area Schools in South Dakota, switched to the cloud, he reduced his network team from three people to one, thanks to the simplified delivery. "We struggled for years to provide a system that was reliable for our staff and teachers, until I finally said, ‘Enough of that. We're looking for a company where this is their expertise,' " Bates says.

Now when there's an issue with an application in the cloud, the operations coordinator picks up the phone to call ISCorp. Their uptime exceeds 99.5 percent. He's also a big cheerleader for the security angle—"There's absolutely no way we have the money to build a disaster recovery site," he notes-and the access to functionality and features that would be impossible to supply to a stand-alone district.

Zimmerman-Bence's school has a small enrollment of 130 students, but that was enough to reveal what a pain it is to support different machines running various software. That's simply the territory for online schools with online resources, or at least he thought. "If you run all that through the cloud, you only have to support one type of platform," he says. Suddenly, help desk calls were simplified. "The savings came to mind after we realized what we were on to here." They are now piloting the concept with 12 users and a lot of help from Samsung on product development.

While cloud reliability is very good and getting better, the downside is obvious: loss of access or data. Google's cloud computing e-mail program, Gmail, has 146 million users, and when it went down for about 90 minutes in September, the company termed it a "Big Deal" in an apology to users.

The market has started to realize cloud's benefits to schools. Earlier this year, HP and ClassLink started SchoolCloud Solution, in which teachers and students use thin-client computers to access apps and data from servers. Hudson Falls (NY) School District is a believer. "We went from managing 1,400 computers to 10 servers," says Greg Partch, the district's IT director.

Pricing Out Cost Savings
There's little argument that cloud computing can save money. Jim Reavis, of the Cloud Security Alliance, has a favorite example: The New York Times' decision to archive its old editions. The original quote ran in the hundreds of thousands of dollars to install and provision the project. Then, someone had the bright idea to use Amazon Web Services, and the cost dropped to less than $1,000.

In October, the Los Angeles City Council voted unanimously to move the city's 30,000 employees to Google Mail in the next year, according to the Los Angeles Times. The $7.25 million deal will include storing data from law enforcement officials, whose security concerns equal school privacy requirements.

The real question is what costs may be associated along the way to savings. Businesses typically save about one quarter of their current IT costs by switching to cloud computing, Reavis estimates, mostly from infrastructure. For school districts, those figures are more nebulous, since they aren't profit-churning entities. Not to mention they continue to need an access device, a web browser, broadband in the school buildings, and perhaps some wireless hotspots, says Thomas Bittman, a vice president with Gartner Research. Reavis adds a software trainer, a help desk, and an IT audit expert to the list, the latter because cloud computing does not excuse a district from its compliance issues with privacy and HIPAA laws. "The audit is a critical area we may even need to spend more time on initially," he says.

Nor have vendors worked out all the bugs-Minnesota's online school, for instance, is scrambling to develop a back-up interface to turn certain software titles, websites, and other functions on and off on the fly. "The promise is there; it's just right now it's a little clunky because you have to do it manually," Zimmerman-Bence explains.

Such glitches are likely why even someone with Bittman's experience and exposure reminds clients that cloud computing is an evolving idea. "On our hype cycle, it's still very early," he says.

Rapid City's Bates can only hope the analyst is right, because that means the pricing could drop. Right now, even with benefits outweighing the hiccups, coughing up the $20,000 annual commitment for a cloud computing host is a challenge. "When our budgets are determined by a board, it's difficult to commit future generations to that sort of [outlay]," Bates admits. "The alternative is ‘Gee, maybe I can pay $60,000 upfront and keep the server running.' " In other words, he needs to prove he can save money on cloud computing, not just with it.

Drive a Hard Bargain
Bates' $20,000 hosting price tag is a mere third of ISCorp's original $60,000 quote. He worked out the sweeter deal by offering to sign a longer-term contract, and dangling sponsorship goodies like banners in the schools and a logo on the district's website. "People like goodwill toward education," he says.

Reavis also suggests schools explore flexible billing options that could bring cloud computing fees to a more pay-per-use status. In that same vein, see if there are contractual arrangements to be made regarding service during non-peak demand times.

Most importantly, start incrementally with the safe stuff. "Absolutely get involved, but choose certain types of services rather than outsourcing everything," Reavis advises. "I would look carefully at drawing the line with regulated information."

At Rapid City Area Schools, "safe" translates to the library system, testing materials, and programs that create award certificates. However, administrators did choose to move the student information system, human resources applications, finance, and food service into the cloud as well. Bates, however, draws the line at putting his infrastructure there.
Right now, businesses will see more of a financial impact than education, Reavis sums up. "But these ubiquitous cloud services have the potential to transform learning," he says.

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