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How Much Computing Power Do You Need?

A Web-based computing environment means fewer hardware purchases and a tremendous cost savings.

In the 1990s, school districts invested all they could in desktop computers that had plenty of horsepower, since applications and data were all stored locally on individual machines. By the 2000s, the individual machines had become less critical as districts moved to server-based networks.

In the 2010s, the cloud—a Web-based environment that can either be privately hosted or based through a service like those Google or Microsoft provides—has become the means of choice for storing many if not most applications and data. Tech companies and districts report benefits such as cost savings and—so long as districts reinvest some of those savings in faster connectivity—an "anytime, anywhere" network that's more widely accessible to users.

"It allows them to think about information technology in a different way," says Bob Moore, director of global education at Dell. "IT in the past was always something you bought—a tangible thing. The majority of investments were sitting on teachers' and students' desks, or in their laps. The cloud allows districts to shift from capital investments to almost a subscription type of revenue. They don't have to make multimillion-dollar investments and hope it serves them well for the next three to five years."

For the better part of a decade, Dell has foreseen the "anytime, anywhere" environment that cloud computing is now creating, but only in the past couple of years has it become an expectation, says Moore, a former chief information officer with Blue Valley Schools in Overland Park, Kan., where he spent 15 years. "Just as it has in our personal lives created that expectation, it's the same thing in education," he says. "That's really fundamental, and it creates pressure on the way schools do things."

Within its own cloud, Google has seen heavier use particularly of Google Docs, a set of applications with which teachers can share assignments or lesson plans with students, other teachers or district administrators, although related apps like Google Talk and Google Sites also have drawn interest, says Jaime Casap, senior education manager. And tablets like Google's own Chromebooks—as well as competing products such as Apple's iPad or HP's TouchPad—are being deployed to access and use cloud-based applications, he says.

Benefits of the Cloud

"Teachers are using cloud-based applications in everything to make their lives easier," Casap says. "It's changing the dynamic of the teacher-student relationship. The teacher used to hand out an assignment and say, ‘Go do it.' Now teachers are more coaching than judging because the student can collaborate with the teacher—the teacher can go into the document and provide guidance and leave hints."

As such, cloud-based applications strengthen the learning process through building skills like communication, collaboration, risk-taking and analysis, Casap says. "Students need to learn those skills, on top of content," he says.

The cloud gives students and teachers the ability to access applications and data on multiple types of devices, including smartphones and tablets, and they can do most anything, including photo editing through services such as Flickr, Moore says. "There aren't too many things today that if you are determined, you couldn't do out of the cloud," he says. "A few years ago, we wouldn't have thought [photo editing] possible. It really has fundamentally changed the notion of the kind of device and the horsepower that device needs."

Moore adds a caveat that schools must be willing to make the adequate bandwidth investment. "If that infrastructure doesn't exist or isn't very good, all bets are off," he says. "But if the cloud infrastructure is in place, then the type of device students use becomes less significant. Some of the tablets today have more computing power, more memory, than full-featured notebooks or desktops just a few short years ago."

So how much computing power do schools still need to have on site? That's changing all the time, so it's hard to pin down a specific figure until one talks to a district's leaders about what they're hoping to do with their technology, says Cameron Evans, chief technology officer for education at Microsoft.

"We could set an arbitrary benchmark today, but those things are doubling in capacity on a logarithmic scale every 18 months," Evans says. "Schools need to focus on their capabilities rather than power. … Every year, the former benchmarks will become more economical, but capabilities will continue to ratchet up. I would love to be able to say, ‘This is the amount of memory you need. This is the amount of computational power you need.' But I'm not going to be put down in history as the person who said, ‘You only need 640 kilobytes of memory.'"

NetbooksGoogle has clients who have shut down all their servers or moved from two or three servers down to one, as they have shifted to cloud-based computing, Casap says. "You're going to need less processing on site." How much less, he says, "is going to depend on what you're trying to teach. We don't try to fit the education to the technology; we try to use the technology as an enabling tool [for the education]."

Hall County (Ga.) Public Schools has saved roughly $1 million by moving approximately half of its functionality into the cloud, says Aaron Turpin, the district's executive director of technology, who has worked with Dell on his district's technology redesign. Hall County schools are moving away from desktop computers to tablet devices with less horsepower, and they've moved to cloud-based instructional textbooks, although those savings have been offset partially with purchases of increased bandwidth.

"It's allowed us to not update and not refresh because we were moving less into the hardware business," Turpin says. "We were updating school-based and district-based servers and such about every three years. We've consolidated, virtualized, put stuff in the cloud." In the Alvarado (Texas) Independent School District, students build their own work portfolios in the cloud and save volumes of other data that would have been housed on servers or desktop machines in the past, says Kyle Berger, executive director of technology services, which had contracted with Hewlett-Packard for its cloud and one-to-one laptop programs. "In the past, we had a lot of computer labs for students. They've started to disappear," he says. Machines that remain "are slowly turning into more of a thin, client-based machine. They're not as powerful as they used to be."

Berkeley (Calif.) Unified School District uses the free Google Apps for Education tool, which provides collaboration through documents, sites, groups, calendars, video and more, says Jay Nitschke, the district's director of technology. The system provides for "super easy integration with phones [and has] no servers to maintain—a big win for the overworked tech team," he says. Berkeley continues to use Mac desktops that are as much as a decade old, Nitschke says. Before replacing them, he has two concerns: the immediate cost of the new smaller devices and questions about whether those devices' long-term durability will lead to additional cost down the road, which could cancel out the savings from less use of power.

"I want to see some analysis," Nitschke says. "It's definitely a goal of mine to turn off servers and use the Web. What I want to do is make it possible for my technology to support the teachers more, rather than have them worrying about how this server behaves or that server behaves."

Gal Pikar, director of marketing for CDI Computers, a reseller of refurbished computers based in Ontario, says he doesn't see many schools using or adopting refurbished computers for the cloud. "We're perfectly positioned for when they do," he says. For now, Pikar adds, "they're keeping the older machines even longer because everything they're doing is Web based." (Read the related story, "Can Refurbished Computers Do the Job?")

Chromebooks.Royal (Texas) Independent School District is piloting a plan to purchase older Dell computers through CDI to see if the cloud means that the latest generation of machines is no longer a necessity. Royal ISD fired up about 100 refurbished units at the start of the school year that were purchased for as low as $100, where a new machine costs $700, says Corey Kelly, Royal's director of technology.

Limitations of the Cloud

The cloud isn't the answer to everything, and districts do need to keep some old-school computing horsepower, say tech companies and CIOs.

Schools still need to have computational horsepower for memory-intensive functions like science experiments and music composition, Evans says. "It's not an either-or proposition," he explains. "We haven't gotten to a place where we're going to throw away all of our computational power."

Casap points to video editing as another area that needs on-site power. "Students taking video cameras and going out and shooting gigs and gigs and gigs of video will need processing power on the machine to do that editing," he says, adding, "I'm not sure how far we are from having cloud-based film editing."

A district with 33 K12 schools and 25,000 students, Hall County Public Schools has kept career technology classes like architecture and engineering out of the cloud mainly because content providers haven't made the jump themselves, Turpin says. "We look forward to that happening," he adds.

Similarly, Alvarado ISD has kept video editing and computer-aided design off the cloud. "Those kinds of things aren't suited to that type of environment," Berger says. "We keep those workhorses on the machines themselves."

But Moore at Dell believes the biggest barrier to the move to the cloud isn't technological, but cultural. "It's a shifting of mindset: Where do we put our investments?" he says. "The first time we were required to store data on a centralized server, it scared us to death. The network might go down, and we might not have access. We need to cut the cord, so to speak. We need to be willing to rely on the next technology."

Ed Finkel is a freelance writer based in Evanston, Ill.