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Schools gain cloud confidence

More districts trust key data to online storage over on-site servers
At Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama, Technology Director Donna Williamson, left, and her tech team still use their on-site server because they didn’t see savings with the cloud.
At Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama, Technology Director Donna Williamson, left, and her tech team still use their on-site server because they didn’t see savings with the cloud.

A convergence of market maturity, increased availability of high-capacity bandwidth and a track record of security has more K12 districts trusting their mission-critical administrative software to the cloud.

In the cloud computing model, districts contract with a provider for on-demand access to a shared pool of resources like networks, servers, storage, applications and services. Districts have been hosting their online learning applications, disaster recovery and websites with cloud providers for some time.

Such experiences give districts the understanding and confidence to trust mission-critical software—like student information systems (SIS), and finance and human resources software—to the cloud.

Also, the success of early adopters has lowered the perceived risk for other districts, says Bob Moore, chief technology officer at Dallas ISD and a data privacy expert with CoSN.

“There is an increasing level of comfort with placing important apps in the cloud,” says Moore. “Part of the reason is that the service offerings of the providers are more mature—they’ve withstood the test of time.”

MMS, an administrative software and hosting service provider for K12, says its new customers opt for the cloud model.

“The option of on-site hosting doesn’t even enter the conversation in most cases,” says Mike Bronder, group vice president and managing director of computer resources at MMS. “Districts are realizing that if a student information system is a core component, then it should have an enterprise class infrastructure behind it.”

Amazon Web Services is on board. “We are seeing a shift in many schools that are no longer using the cloud just as an alternative to existing on-premises applications, but now are starting to take more of a ‘cloud first’ approach, and looking to use the cloud with any new applications they deploy,” says Teresa Carlson, vice president of the worldwide public sector at Amazon Web Services.

More uptime, fewer headaches

The cloud model promises a stronger infrastructure. And it provides 24/7 staffing which results in more uptime and round-the-clock availability of essential software applications such as payroll and student registration.

Are you cloud-ready?

Before moving your administrative systems to the cloud, make sure you have the right people, operations model and technology in place.

Right people

  • Do you have the skill sets to assess and manage a cloud infrastructure?
  • Do you have the right information protection resources to assess and manage student information in a public cloud?

Right operations model

  • Define accountability around the operational components, such as change management, incident management and problem management.
  • Define accountability and measurements around availability and performance management.

Right technology

  • Is your application cloud-ready? Are there any interdependencies with other applications?
  • Does the cloud solution meet your security and compliance needs?
  • Can the solution and your provider meet your requirements for the next two to three years?

Source: Brian Louderback, director of sales, Insight Public Sector, a provider of hardware, software, cloud solutions and IT services to K12 education clients

The need to have critical applications on-demand was a primary driver when East Maine School District 63 in Illinois moved its finance and HR systems to the cloud from an aging server. The district sits in the Chicago suburbs near the coast of Lake Michigan, an area prone to big storms and power outages.

“When we switched, it was a bit of a relief not having to worry about a server here that might fail,” says David Bein, assistant superintendent of business services at East Maine schools. “Because uptime is so important, districts need to ask cloud providers about their support team and their available tech team in the event of a problem.”

And hosting enterprise software is complex—hardware will break, and operating systems will have bugs and failures, says Bronder at MMS.

“While districts might budget for regular management of an enterprise system, responding to critical failures is simply unpredictable,” he says. “And it is best avoided through a cloud-based system where the vendor is scaled to avoid and recover from issues.”

The cloud service also takes on the complex and time-consuming burden of implementing version upgrades. “Every application provider releases a number of patches and updates over the course of the year,” says Moore. “Knowing how those changes will impact the end user is probably the more challenging aspect.”

Another reason for going to the cloud is that having a cloud provider implement the software also increases the likelihood that a district will use more of its features. When done on-site, sometimes the district’s IT staff does not have time to deploy all the features of a software package—or they deploy them, but don’t have time to explore and share them with end users.

For example, an online payment process for parents available in SIS software from MMS traditionally has not been used much in districts that host the SIS solution on site, most likely because the IT staff did not have time to deploy that function.

But when the SIS solution is hosted in the cloud by MMS and its full functionality—including the payment application—is fully deployed by the provider, more districts make use of it.

“It takes planning and thought to roll out all the applications within a software package,” says Bronder. “With a cloud provider, the complete solution is made available for the district. Now IT can focus on learning how to use it and teaching users rather than on how to roll it out and manage the infrastructure.”

Of course, there are obstacles to moving to the cloud. A district needs enough bandwidth to access the service and all software must be cloud-compatible.

Gibraltar Area Schools in Wisconsin is eagerly waiting for its software provider to make cloud-ready versions of its finance, HR and SIS software. The district already hosts many other applications in the cloud and is sold on the benefits, says Steve Minten, Gibraltar’s IT director.

A big advantage is not having to support the physical infrastructure. “With a cloud model, I don’t have to wait for replacement hard drives to be shipped to me and I don’t have to physically go to another building to check the server room,” says Minten. “There are fewer physical things to repair, back up, maintain, or break and replace.”

However, even when enterprise software is hosted off-site in a cloud relationship, it still requires district staff attention. Matters that need to be addressed include technical management and making sure that the provider meets privacy and security requirements for hosting K12 data.

Some larger districts have created a new role, “portfolio manager,” to manage all cloud applications, Moore says. “It’s an emerging skill set that’s very important,” says Moore. “It makes sense to have a domain of expertise around this and let that person do it very efficiently.”

Putting a price on value

When hosting on-site, districts pay for software licenses, upgrades, utilities and hardware, as well as the cost of staff to maintain the network and software. Cloud software is generally based on a subscription model, giving districts a predictable line item cost. In both models, districts usually pay a one-time implementation fee for set-up, data migration and training. 

When East Maine School District analyzed the pros and cons, it determined cloud hosting was more cost-effective, in the long run, than an on-site server. “And that doesn’t even weigh in the fact that someone at the district is freed up to do something else,” says Bein.

Moore of Dallas ISD recommends that districts base comparisons on value rather than cost.

“It would be rare that moving to the cloud saves huge amounts and also rare that it will cost a huge amount more,” says Moore. “But having more uptime and using more features in the software should be a higher perceived value. If you’re running your SIS on a shoestring, yes the cost is lower but you’re probably not getting full use of it.”

Of course, the numbers don’t always add up. Mountain Brook Schools in Alabama had just installed new servers when its SIS became available as a cloud-ready solution. But they kept their server.

“When we looked at the time we spend on updates to our SIS, it wasn’t that much,” says Donna Williamson, the technology director. “Overall, the SIS cloud model wasn’t a savings for us.”

Having a current infrastructure and large enough tech staff to support it are reasons to keep enterprise software local, says Brian Louderback of Insight Public Sector, which provides hardware, software, cloud solutions and IT services to K12 clients.

“We’re seeing more districts park their finance and SIS systems in the cloud,” he adds, “but there’s still many districts hosting these systems on-site.”

Katie Kilfoyle Remis is a freelance writer based in upstate New York.