Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Advantages of Cloud-Based Computing for Educational Systems

“Cloud computing” is a common but often misunderstood phrase, both in its meaning and the benefits thereof. In simple terms, cloud computing refers to the performance of computer work using Internet-based (“hosted”) services. For the curious, this use of the word “cloud” originated in technical flowcharting where the cloud symbol was first used to represent the telephone network and later, the Internet.

There are three general categories of cloud computing: Software as a Service (SaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS), and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS). PaaS and IaaS both present Internet-based “environments” enabling users to combine related functions into a single integrated, Internet-hosted service.” SaaS is a simpler (and the most popular) form of cloud computing. With SaaS, a service provider such as ATI (typically) offers subscription-based access to software built and deployed by the provider. In using ATI’s Galileo Online, much data is entered primarily by school teachers, administrators and students; however, the “service” component of SaaS is clearly evident at ATI with staff members updating item banks, importing Student Information System (SIS) data, importing and exporting statewide test and Galileo data, and generating and scheduling Instructional Dialogs, and several different types of assessments – all on a daily basis.

The benefits of cloud computing are increasingly apparent as the number of cloud services increases, and Galileo Online has been providing a cloud-based Instructional Improvement System (IIS) since 1999. When deciding whether to invest in a cloud-based service of any sort for your district, school or Head Start program, consider the following benefits:

  1. COST SAVINGS: Educational systems are able to deliver applications without a heavy investment in hardware, software, or increasing the burden on an already-taxed (and possibly shrinking) IT staff. Where a locally-hosted application may require purchase of one (or more) servers, software licenses, and related hardware, cloud-based solutions require only the Internet connection and desktop computers for individual users. SaaS can also enable educational systems to more effectively deal with growth or increasing student populations without requiring additional hardware (or staff to support new hardware).

    Another contributor to the cloud computing return on investment (ROI) is the possible extension of the desktop life cycle. As the number of software packages running directly on the desktop decreases, the ability to extend the life of a desktop system by one or more years increases.

    One final cost benefit is in the area of greener computing: power consumption. To deploy locally-hosted roles (such as SIS or IIS) requires possible addition of application servers, data servers, disk arrays and associated hardware for each new role. It’s realistic to expect three or more additional power-hungry devices per locally-hosted role. When using SaaS, the client-side hardware requirement is reduced to just networking equipment.

  2. IMPROVED APPLICATION TIME-TO-DEPLOYMENT: With any new service implementation, planning and training precede deployment. With locally-hosted solutions of any centralized information system such as an SIS or IIS, additional time must be factored to include hardware budget cycling, scoping, purchasing and configuration. This can extend deployment by six months or more, depending on challenges faced during hardware configuration. If the student population grows or implementation is expanded for other reasons, IT departments may discover that a mid-cycle hardware upgrade is necessary, increasing costs and lowering ROI.

  3. REMOTE ACCESSIBILITY: The demands on educators are trending similarly to the rest of the workforce – they are ever-increasing, requiring greater efficiency and availability of both teachers and administrators. Lesson planning, grading, exam construction, and data mining- tasks such as these are frequently performed on personal time and from home or other locations outside the school. Remote access capabilities are not unique to SaaS, but SaaS allows educational systems to fulfill this need without exposing networks to the associated security vulnerabilities. Data security is a natural concern with any cloud-based service, but this is effectively dealt with by SaaS vendors like ATI employing user authentication, Secure Sockets Layer (SSL) data transfer encryption, and hardware firewalls to filter network traffic.

  4. HANDS-FREE UPGRADES: Software is upgraded for several reasons. Security and stability improvements are two of the main reasons, but feature-addition and refinement are also important reasons to upgrade software. In a locally-hosted client-server model, IT staff must coordinate and install upgrades provided by the vendor - and occasionally respond to the fallout, should the upgrade cause confusion or introduce bugs. The desktop-based model, where user data is stored on individual computers, poses an even greater commitment from staff because the upgrade must be staged and somehow deployed to every client computer running the software. Cloud-based service subscribers enjoy the benefit of every upgrade provided without any client-side installation. Galileo Online subscribers enjoy an added benefit - not only do software upgrades become available immediately, but content upgrades are immediately available to users immediately upon publication as well (there’s that “service” again). Teachers not only enjoy the benefit of scheduling resources shared by other users within the school/district, but they also have access to ATI’s expanding library of 900+ Instructional Dialogs and 80,000+ test items immediately upon publication by the Assessment and Instructional Design staff at ATI.

These are just a few of the benefits offered by cloud-based computing. Of course, it is not without certain challenges I will discuss in a future post. Are you already a Galileo Online user or working with another vendor, and enjoying the benefits of SaaS, PaaS or IaaS? If not, what concerns do you have about jumping “into the cloud?”

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