We are at the start of a revolution in the use of computers, one that analysts predict will rival the development of the PC in its significance. Companies such as Google, HP, Amazon, Sun Microsystems, Sony, IBM and Apple aren’t just paying attention; they’re orienting their entire business models toward this change. Business software maker SAS has announced plans for a $70 million facility in North Carolina just to keep up with the demand. The first federal CIO, President Obama appointee Vivek Kundra, wants to take the IT structure of the entire federal government in this new direction. The average consumer actively uses this model of technology multiple times a day, thousands of school districts use its services already, and many believe K12 education will completely embrace this technology structure in the coming years, revolutionizing how educators, students and administrators use software, hardware and the Internet. But many are unaware of the paradigm shift that they are participating in every day: it’s called “cloud computing.”
What Is Cloud Computing?
Software was once the main way to access content on a computer, but today users access most content and applications on the Web. Users are saving less information on their individual machines and ever more online. The use of free e-mail services, such as Gmail, Hotmail or Yahoo, is one illustration. While millions of users have an e-mail account with one of these providers, few of them know where the information is stored or where e-mails travel between the writer and the recipient. But this doesn’t matter. The data are stored “out there,” traveling through a “cloud,” the larger network, the Internet. Few users know or care where Google, Microsoft or Yahoo’s massive server and processor arrays are located, but therein lies one of the many strengths of this type of computing. Having data accessible only through the Internet enables users to log in and read the same e-mail from practically any location and on a variety of platforms, whether it is on their home computer, iPhone or Blackberry, PC or Mac, or at an Internet caf? overseas. The hardware or software installed locally is irrelevant to the user’s ability to access information.
This same model has been applied to a growing number of other applications. Consumers, as well as school districts, can now store everything from photos, videos and music to resumes, financial records and backup copies of all sorts of data not on their computers but completely online in a distant server.
Entities from behemoth technology companies like Amazon and Google, to the smallest startups, to government agencies are scrambling to move more resources into the cloud for use by consumers, businesses and schools alike. Microsoft spent an estimated $2.3 billion building new cloud computing data centers in 2007 alone. Amazon offers a variety of cloud services to enable developers or businesses to essentially rent server space from the company’s massive server warehouses, providing practically limitless capabilities and saving them the huge costs of buying and maintaining their own servers. IBM has a cloud computing division and released a suite of cloud-based collaboration software in March. “What you are seeing are the beginnings of the whole IBM company moving toward cloud computing,” says IBM Vice President Sean Poulley.
“I’m all about the cloud computing notion,” federal CIO Vivek Kundra said in an interview with the Wall Street Journal about his philosophy of government IT structure. “I look at my lifestyle, and I want access to information wherever I am. I am killing projects that don’t investigate software as a service [in the cloud] first.”
Impact on District Management
In K12 education, cloud computing holds incredible promise for improving efficiency and reducing costs relating to maintenance and installation, particularly in district administrative functions. As more resources move online into the cloud, the need for constantly upgraded software, computers and local servers rapidly erodes, saving time and money. HP is planning cloud computing pilot programs in several school districts in the coming months. Andrew Wright, director of technology for the Brighton (Colo.) School District 27J, uses SaaS (“software as a service,” or cloudbased software) IT asset management program SchoolDude. “We have exact numbers at all times, and the SaaS structure made it fast and easy to implement,” says Wright in comparing the service to other programs. “Cloud computing offers tremendous opportunities for schools to think differently about using software,” says Anthony Salcito, general manager of education at Microsoft. “The cloud enables school administrators to have huge capabilities at their disposal.”
Ironically, however, many administrators are already using the cloud for a variety of district management tasks, usually without realizing that they are in fact standing at the edge of the future. The revolution is just beginning, but administrators will soon see more of their functions becoming cloud-based, not just for convenience and cost savings but out of true necessity. “A lot of existing administrative technology is practically at the breaking point in many school districts,” says Louis Masi, director of global university programs at IBM. “Moving such services into the cloud [instead of relying on local software] enables administrators to use technology more to their advantage, instead of always trying to keep up.”
For more information on district management technology tools heading into the cloud, go to www.districtadministration.com/viewarticlepf.aspx?articleid=2005
Watch Kurt Dyrli’s companion video explaining cloud computing.
Kurt O. Dyrli is products editor.