By Andy Dent - Managing Director, Innovit

This has got me thinking...

Would it be possible to move everything into the cloud?

Take a typical Secondary School. Most schools will have a dedicated server room housing at least one rack of servers and in many cases two.
Schools that have consolidated their servers using virtualisation may have between 3 and 5 physical servers with associated storage in the multiple Terabytes. Remember projected growth in a typical secondary school is 40% year on year.

Many schools will have a secondary location with their backup systems either on-site or a combination incorporating cloud backup.

That easily represents a capital investment of £70,000 to £100,000 just in equipment that has to be renewed on average every 5 years.

Combine with that the overheads of power, cooling and licensing and this represents a considerable draw on school finances.

Delay your refresh to save money and you introduce performance and reliability issues that impact in the classroom.

When you add it all up – cloud based services start to become attractive. So why do schools continue to have server rooms?

Well up until recently cloud servers have had their limitations.

Bandwidth

Cloud based services are the wrong side of a limited Internet connection. Most secondary schools have at least 100MB. Many Local Authority broadband solutions have been a little short sighted by installing 100/100 leased lines meaning there is no opportunity to upgrade.

In the last couple of years as contracts have been re-negotiated between Local Authorities and Broadband providers we have seen 100/1000 leased lines being installed. This still gives 100MB of bandwidth but has the capability of expanding in the future.

Forward thinking Local Authorities such as Peterborough for example have been installing 1GB Internet feeds into their schools for the past two years. But they do seem to be in the minority.

The latest offering from LGFL for example is 200MB but even then I think that is too conservative. However if you ask them for pricing of a 1GB Internet feed it is forthcoming and quite competitive. Unfortunately 2GB and above is still a twinkle in the providers eye.

We already know that with the introduction of Bring Your Own Device and the shift to cloud based services that many schools are saturating their broadband links. (Double your devices – double your utilisation if not more) We know of one school that went from 100MB to topping out over 380MB utilisation just by opening BYOD to the sixth form.

We also know that servers hosted on premises enjoy at least 1GB network links and in many cases nowadays 10GB is quite common. Now – put your servers on the other side of an already saturated Internet feed and see how your performance improves – NOT!

My view is that schools will need at least 1GB feeds to handle the increase in demands. In addition many services that currently run on traditional desktops will have to transition to run in the cloud as well. What we call ‘Desktop as a Service’.

This is not as difficult as it sounds however. Server virtualisation and Remote Desktop Services have come on leaps and bounds over the past few years.

There is nothing stopping users running applications in the cloud using these sort of technologies.

Some other considerations around moving servers into the cloud...

Security

So we put our information up in the cloud on someone else’s infrastructure. Where are the firewalls? How do we ensure that this data is safe? Backed up? Secure?

These are fundamental questions that many Network Managers lose sleep over. If you can physically lock the server away in a nice convenient server room. If your backup systems are to hand and you have a clear demarcation point between you and the rest of the world (i.e. a Firewall at the point of your Internet Feed) then you are Golden.
Placing servers in the cloud however means that the Network Manager has to relinquish some control. The design of the network becomes more complex as you want an encrypted private network (VPN) between you and the cloud service provider. You want to expose certain services to the Internet (such as mail, remote access etc.) but the firewall is .... out there... somewhere.

Also where exactly is our data being stored? What legislation is covered by this?

There are many cloud based hosting providers. Amazon, Google, RackServer and Azure to name but a few.

How can we ensure our data is safe and how can we guarantee it is compliant with UK legislation in particular when it comes to the Data Protection Act and Child Safety?

Well the DFE have published a useful white paper on this.
https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/cloud-software-services-and-the-data-protection-act

There are a number of fundamental points but what it boils down to is:

  • It must be in the EU
  • It must be encrypted
  • The school must retain ownership of the data
  • It must not be used for any purpose other than that which it was intended

If the service provider cannot guarantee this then it is not advisable to use them. Note advisable not a categorical ban.

Performance

In the rapidly expanding information rich world performance is key. Whatever service provider you go with needs to be able to provide capacity on a sliding scale. The more bandwidth, processing power etc. the better the performance. You want a provider that can scale so that you pay for what you use and no more.

Cost

This has until now been the main stumbling point of cloud based hosting. We know of one school who enquired about moving to the cloud in their entirety and were quoted over £170,000 per year!

Personally I think they enquired with the wrong service provider. After all what we are looking for here is cost saving.

That is the crux of the issue and this is where most organisations come unstuck. What we are talking about here is not as clear cut as all that.

Yes you are going to get a capital saving of roughly £10-15k per year but you are also going to get a saving on the cost of devices – after all if services are running in the cloud – all your device has to do is deliver the audio, video and interaction with the user. Do you need a £700 device to do this when a £200-£300 device will do just as well?
How much will it save your organisation if the user can use their personal devices? Microsoft’s entire business philosophy now revolves around the ability for organisations to deliver line of business applications and data to users own personal devices regardless of type (yes Apple and Android too). What if you were able to trim your device requirements down to bare minimums? How much would that potentially save?

Many cloud based service providers employ models where you pay for what you use. This has to be estimated and given most organisations don't actually know what they use is the great unknown.

But - consider this:

With the introduction of Onedrive for Business or Google Drive users have at least 1TB of personal storage so - no need for home directories any more.

With Google Classroom and Office 365 Sites the generic dumping ground we call our resources drive and also be retired.

Cloud based email such as Exchange Online or Gmail take care of your mail storage so what's left?

Database services, web services and specialist line of business applications many of whom offer their own Cloud service offerings.

In short - not a lot!

Conclusion

The serverless school is no longer a pipe dream. We are working with more than one organisation to plan this transition. In my estimation we will see the first truly server less school in the next 12 to 18 months. It could even be one of ours!