Monday, March 30, 2015

Why Cloud deployments are not the answer for ICT in schools

It's apparent that 'Cloud' has impacted significantly on the development of school's ICT. 

However, this isn't necessarily happening in the way vendors had hoped.  The adoption of Software as a Service (SaaS) has been huge across the board with everything from Microsoft Office 365, Google Apps for Education to Mathletics and web based learning solutions to the innumerable iPad apps with web back ends.

The thing that seems to be missing at the moment is a similar focus on Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Platform as a Service (PaaS).  In the immortal words of Professor Julius Sumner-Miller, "Why is this so?".  Some schools have deployed IaaS, most commonly a Back Up as a Service solution or some virtualised machines in data centres; these services seem to have had much more traction in the commercial space. 

Why have schools not adopted this?  This is a very important question for many vendors as they see IaaS as a large opportunity for sales growth into the school sector.  However some very significant issues will hamper sales of these infrastructure services into the school sector.

Single site

Most schools exist as a single site. There won't be many companies with IT infrastructure the size and complexity of a school who exist on a single site.  The value of having an IaaS cloud solution is multiplied many times when you operate a diverse multi site environment.  In a single site the cloud solution means the school is totally dependent upon their Internet connection.  This could mean significant extra cost in having a second link to remove the single point of failure.  The main effect of this is when looking at the benefits of cloud we immediately remove some of the most significant positives and increase the negatives.

There are a few schools who are not single site and the organisations representing multiple schools such as Catholic Education Office and Swan Christian Education Association which are not limited by this concern.

Of course the other consideration is we do have significant access needs for parents and students from of campus which is improved by cloud technologies.

Lack of a cost benefit

Significant numbers of schools have adopted Virtualisation at a higher rate than other industries.  The immediate benefits of Virtualisation is important to schools with significant hardware and support cost savings. Now many of us are on our third generation of virtualised servers and have no interest in losing those savings.  This means when we are comparing the costs of IaaS solutions to our current environment there are normally no savings available and often the cloud based solution is costing more with little obvious benefit.

There are schools still moving down the virtualisation path. They will benefit from moving direct to IaaS.

Hiring patterns

Most schools went through an expansion of their ICT support teams in the period up until 2012.  As a result of this timing most of the Manager/Directors with technical backgrounds came into schools prior to the widespread adoption of cloud.  This means most senior technical staff come from their previous environments with no experience in deploying IaaS, this doesn't mean they're not sure of cloud or doubt it is going to rule the future, it just means we are going to need to be convinced of the real value and security of IaaS.

Bad experiences

Although not widespread there have been pioneers who tried IaaS solutions or even as we did PaaS as part of older projects.  We were trialling a PaaS solution in 2007 but we ended up leaving the trial due to the providers of that service not understanding that taking the service down for updates in week 4 of term 1 would be detrimental to uptake within the school.  When updates were applied to the servers which bought the system down for an extended period and the provider was quite comfortable that they had no need to provide us with an assurance they would not repeat the exercise we decided that we couldn't continue with that risk.

The result is that in 2007 we started to virtualise our environment and continued to prefer the option of controlling our own schedule of updates and patches.

Summary

To summarise my post - The 'Cloud' in particular IaaS is not the answer to any school's IT problems.  We (schools) are not looking for a quick solution to problems which don't exist.  We're looking to make every dollar we spend deliver the best value possible.  At the moment a tenancy in a very expensive data centre doesn't deliver any savings.  We're looking and waiting for the technology to deliver savings for us.  What vendors don't want to understand is; we don't care that much about your profits, and we won't necessarily sign up for whatever is "trendy".