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Cloud Computing Guide

Demystifying Cloud

Cloud computing can be confusing, with enough terminology to befuddle the most tech-savvy CTO. (Software as a Service? Virtual Private Cloud?) This guide explains what you need to know and how cloud can help your district.

Cloud's Clear Benefits
Districts are saving money, improving service, and retaining flexibility by switching to cloud computing.

Ken Graham knew he had a problem. Students in his district, Hauppauge Public Schools in Long Island, New York, were creating great work, from videos to graphical presentations. But these files needed space and when Graham, the district's assistant superintendent for administration and technology, learned the story of a shy girl who found the courage to speak up with the help of her computer, he knew he needed to make a change. He had to create a powerful enough network to address both of these needs.

He needed extra space and he needed to stay within the limits of his district's privacy policy. "Children have to be protected but we also need to help them move forward," Graham says. That's where ePals, a K-12 network with more than 200 million students, came in. "We began with them to get a hybrid cloud to supplement the content storage available and provide safety measures," he says. "We also looked to them in terms of dealing with bandwidth issues."

For some, cloud computing is an amorphous issue. But for Graham, its definition was simple: technology the district could use without owning hardware. Graham had more ideas on how to use the cloud for his district's needs.

"We wanted to replicate content to a district data center and get the data center to the ePals' cloud as well," Graham explains. "This way, the work the students were involved in would be available at network speed in the domain, and then wherever students were doing their work individually. They would use our Internet bandwidth for accessing other content and then store it at the ePals site."

Fewer IT Headaches
Leisha Simon, director of technology and accountability at Wayland Public Schools, 30 minutes outside of Boston, saw Google as a vital solution. "We have Google Apps Education as our cloud for all students and staff," she says. "We're also extended to Google e-mail. We outsource our e-mail archiving through Google's Postini—all of that is also cloud based."

From a management standpoint, the pros of putting her schools in the cloud, says Simon, are streamlining work and making files accessible for students and staff. The district also works with the technology education company it's learning, which created a one-stop portal for all resources.

Simon admits she has used cloud-based aspects for years but this complete overhaul meant losing the headaches of installing and updating. The negative side is that operating budgets go up along with a yearly fee—unavoidable to Simon. "No matter how you cut it you will be paying if you want to improve your technology," she says.

The learning curve comes not with training the kids, who were born into a constantly changing technological world, but rather with training their teachers, says Simon. She recommends adding a professional development focus for switching over to the cloud and allowing enough time for repetitive learning. "We had curriculum initiatives and online courses for staff," she says. "We found spending a whole year on it prepared them to lead students and gain their own confidence."

Avoid Long-term Costs
Ssteve Nelson, chief iIT strategist for the Oregon Department of Education, saw his own state turn to Google Apps, a move that he estimates saved $1.5 million. "Every user has e-mail, and we don't want to do it all by ourselves for a subset of that many students," Nelson says. "You could get free Gmail from Google but the problem was getting filtering and archiving. Bridging accounts between the two was a nightmare."

Even though there may be set offerings for opportunities such as Google Apps, Nelson encourages patience and an open communication in what you want. It is possible to get some degree of customization. "They included the Postini filtering service at no cost for K-12 and that opened up things," he says. "Integration into their applications also worked well. It makes for a feature-rich application, so we can take Google Docs and get into the learning management system."

Though the Google cloud may be a little inflexible at times, Hauppauge's Graham says what it adds to your budget makes it easily worth it. "It saves a lot of money because even though the cost of bandwidth increases, you can move enormous communication infrastructure to Google and you don't have to buy servers or licenses for proprietary software," he says. "What you're really trying to do is slow the growth curve of cost. The financial burden each year in terms of [technological] growth is fairly daunting. Now the key isn't so much long-term costs but long-term cost avoidance!"

Boost Student Interaction
Despite the fact cloud computing has been around awhile, its time in the mainstream ed sector is rather miniscule. Simon says schools have only scratched the surface of the cloud era, to the point where the term computer will almost become obsolete. "I see virtual desktop interfaces in the cloud like an AirSet," she says. "We brought in 100 sim clients—when you're running everything back at a data center or using the Internet, you don't need software apps on a computer. You just need access to the Internet, and good access." 

Nelson sees a lot more student interaction. "We talk about student data and academic success but not about student engagement," he assesses. "This technology will be critical to many future jobs, and you create options by allowing students to connect to the subject matter. That's how you win here. —EB

Are You Ready for the Cloud?
Before you leap, here are two key decisions to make.

Choose Public or Private
Among the first questions to answer is whether schools should use a public or private cloud. Private cloud applications can be customized, but public cloud offerings are one size fits all, says Pete Reilly, founder of the Ed Tech Journeys blog and an adjunct professor at the New York Institute of Technology.

Sensitive data may be more secure on private clouds. But up-front costs are higher, since districts must purchase servers and applications and hire staff to set up and manage the cloud. With public clouds, districts pay one vendor for shared use of Web-based software.

Reilly says the question isn't either-or and suggests using both. "Get as much as you can from the public cloud, which may be 65 percent of your applications," he says. "Instead of running software that doesn't yet have public versions on a local desktop hard drive, I would load those on a server. Everybody can access them 24/7 and districts get the benefits of cloud."

By 2015, Reilly says, software vendors will migrate all applications to the Web, reducing the need for private clouds. But by then, he adds, the new challenge will be building powerful wireless networks.

How Much Bandwidth to Buy?
Oklahoma City Public Schools has used both private and public clouds for several years. Before making the transition, the K-12 district, which supports more than 42,000 students and 5,000 employees, assessed how important each application was to its daily operations, then determined whether to host it in-house or outsource it via cloud technology, says Stephen Washam, the district's director of network services.

While the district's SAP financial system was deemed critical, maintaining it would require highly skilled technicians earning as much as the district's superintendent. Washam says it was more cost effective to have the application hosted. To avoid latency issues, a dedicated circuit over the Internet was added to separate traffic between users of the system and other Internet applications.

"We decided to move it completely onto its own pipe," he says. The pipe's five-figure annual cost is offset by the roughly $3 million received by the district each year from E-Rate.

Last year, the district developed a private cloud shared by its 89 campuses that hosts a variety of applications, program information for special education, and transportation and central food systems. Washam says it's accessed by students, teachers, and parents, as well as local police, who view network-based security cameras. By centralizing information, Washam says it reduced the footprint needed in its computer room, along with power consumption.

He says the challenge with cloud computing is ensuring the district's infrastructure has enough bandwidth. "We have a real challenge trying to anticipate the bandwidth needed to support the software educators may throw at us," he says, adding that educators don't always alert IT regarding their future needs. "They'll say, ‘We want you to build us a boat.' Then I ask, ‘Do you want a rowboat or an aircraft carrier?' They say, ‘We don't know, but when we get ready to get into the boat, it better be big enough.' "

Part of the process includes testing bandwidth, agrees Debbie Karcher, chief information officer at Miami-Dade County Public Schools, which supports approximately 345,000 students and 50,000 employees. Her district has used both private and public cloud computing for six years, giving parents, providers, employers, and even subcontractors access to its private cloud.

If a district experiences a slow response only when using a cloud, the problem is probably on the host's end. But if a district's response time is typically slow or fine until 5,000 students are added, then the district must buy more bandwidth, which is costly.

"We're opening up our pipe very slowly," she says, adding that districts can also implement a short-term solution called quality of service, or QoS, that prioritizes Internet traffic, making the cloud application a high priority. But as response time deteriorates, districts will have to increase bandwidth. "That's just the cost of doing business," explains Karcher. —CP

Classroom Help
Cloud-powered math lab allows Illinois middle school to offer individualized instruction.

For some school districts, cloud computing seems too nebulous, futuristic, or high tech to implement. But when IBM representatives approached school leaders from Illinois's Indian Prairie School District to build an onsite computer lab that would operate in a cloud computing environment, administrators jumped at the chance to invite the future into their classrooms, explains Jennifer Nonnemacher, principal at Fischer Middle School in Aurora.

The program was a collaborative effort between the technology giant and Wyse Technology, which specializes in cloud client computing, Lrn2innovate, an education infrastructure provider, and the Dunham Fund, a private philanthropic foundation that donated $50,000 for the project. According to an IBM press release, "The project is anticipated to be the first of many in a series to take place throughout the U.S."

The lab became operational in early 2010 at Fischer Middle School, which supports 1,015 6-8 students, and it delivers a pilot math program designed by the school's math department. Between 75 and 100 students who either struggle with math or are on an accelerated track use the lab each school day.

"The lab offers above and beyond what our regular curriculum is for math," says Nonnemacher. "We use so many online programs to help give kids what they need in terms of instruction."

So far, the lab has made quite an impact on student achievement.

"The kids feel very special, that they're a part of this new technology," she adds. "There's at least a 50 percent increase in the number of targeted students who went from either below standards to meeting standards or meeting standards to exceeding standards."

Nonnemacher and the school's math teachers collectively decide which students need lab access. Students are placed in differentiated learning groups that use the lab at different frequencies and times, including those who participate after school. Since many lessons are in game format, she says, students think they're playing video games instead of building their math skills and competencies.

While similar results may be obtained with traditional desktop computers and software, Nonnemacher notes that the lab's computers are very basic, inexpensive, and save both space and energy. What's more, she says, students tend to get more bogged down, even distracted, when using robust PCs that house numerous applications on their hard drives.

Despite their added value and benefits, Nonnemacher says it's premature to determine if cloud-based labs are the best approach. "We're still in the data-gathering stages," she cautions. "But cloud technology does streamline the educational process and maximize instructional time." —CP

Compound Savings
This New Jersey district's switch to cloud computing saves money in operations and hardware.

In the summer of 2008, the K-8 Lopatcong Township School District in Phillipsburg, New Jersey, was feeling the strain of its shrinking budget. To save money, time, and resources, it implemented a nontraditional approach that could end up saving the district close to $30,000 annually.

The district switched its e-mail hosting to Google and turned to ClassLink in Clifton, New Jersey, to virtualize its servers and thin clients, says Matt Shea, director of technology for the district.

In the past, the Warren County Vocational-Tech High School hosted e-mail for schools throughout the county, including Lopatcong. But its rates were rising. So Shea began contacting vendor after vendor, inquiring about cloud computing. Based on his research, it didn't take long before district administrators gave him the green light to switch to Google, which now hosts e-mail for 140 teachers, board of director members, and other staff—all for free.

"It's been working so well that I've done presentations at some of the other school districts in the county and they have also switched," says Shea. "We're saving about $12,000 each year."

However, the district's savings with ClassLink may even be higher, potentially reaching $80,000 every five years. Shea explains the district abandoned a policy requiring the replacement of 200 to 300 computers every five years. Instead, it purchased thin clients, which use minimal energy, don't have a hard drive, and cost significantly less—roughly $350 each. Now, when any of its administrators, teachers, or 1,000 students log in, they automatically connect to a cloud or application server that populates their desktop with a variety of software programs.

In the near future, Shea says the district may purchase additional licensing from ClassLink to ensure students, faculty, and staff can access the same software from home. "The real power is students who haven't purchased a $400 package of Microsoft Office can still access those applications from ClassLink's cloud," he says. "You want to have these tools kids are using in the classrooms and future jobs available 24/7."

Meanwhile, Shea has been busy pushing out more district information to clouds managed by different vendors. The district's card catalog is now hosted online by Follett, and its student information system by Genesis.

"If we're trying to teach that learning is a lifelong process, it can't stop within our four walls," says Shea. "The whole reason to switch to a cloud is that it hopefully saves you money, saves you time, and, if it doesn't do those two things, it needs to at least give 24/7 access to your students and staff." —CP

Cloud Computing Directory
These companies will help ease your district's move to the cloud.

Google Apps has advanced collaboration and communication tools for students. No hardware or software installation or maintenance is needed. There are no worries about ads, and schools can get it free. An integrated calendar manages your schedule and reserves resources such as lab rooms or laptop carts. Included are Web-based applications, collaboration on documents, and the ability to build class or project websites safely. E-mail policies can be customized for different groups such as faculty, staff, and students. And, for most students and educators working with Google is already familiar.

The Dell and Stoneware partnership has created a private cloud-computing environment, enabling every member of the school community to remotely access their applications, documents, assignments, grades, and more from any Internet-enabled device, either school-issued or privately owned. Students can access their homework and projects 24/7 and benefit from greater interactivity inside and outside the classroom. Parents gain the ability to track their child's progress and collaborate with teachers. Teachers can securely work within applications and files to create lesson plans or update assignments real-time, using the Web desktop interface. Technologists can centrally manage applications that reside on their local district network or at a remote location and leverage Web applications to cut costs.

The HP SchoolCloud solution combines infrastructure, software, and onsite, instructor-led professional development for teachers. HP has partnered with ClassLink software for school and home access to software and files, as well as to enable and support collaboration. With it, tech directors get monitoring and management tools, and administrators get lower tech costs and increased learning results. HP SchoolCloud is a scalable solution, all managed from a central location using an Internet connection and any PC.

Microsoft officials say the choice to move to the cloud is not an all-or-nothing proposition. With different types of cloud offerings, there are flexible options. Need and security requirements determine the level of cloud capabilities to explore. There are three distinct sets of offerings: Software as a Service includes the applications, such as e-mail, people use every day; Platform as a Service is the operating environment in which applications run; and Infrastructure as a Service is the on-demand data centers.

netTrekker builds cloud applications that open access to sharing. It leverages learner profile data across applications and stimulates innovation in personalized learning. Students find resources that meet their personal learning needs in a safe environment, and teachers share resources for differentiating their lessons, making personalizing instruction cost effective.

IBM's Smarter Classroom enhances learning services with analytic and insight tools, personal learning environments, and dynamic infrastructures. Primary and secondary schools can empower students and teachers while managing expenses with collaborative tools, open educational resources, and virtualized tools delivered through the cloud. School district administrators can deliver enhanced services while reducing operational expenses by helping to manage performance and achieve district goals.

EMC provides the technologies and tools that can help design, build, and manage flexible, scalable, and secure information infrastructures. This can allow for efficient storage, protection, and management of information so that it can be made cloud accessible, searchable, shareable, and actionable.

Oracle gives schools a variety of cloud offerings, from Software as a Service to hosted and managed options to on-premises deployment to private clouds and Infrastructure as a Service.

Novell offers technology to help schools lower costs by deploying workloads to public and private clouds as well as traditional data centers.


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