On cloud nine: Migrating to the cloud

Privacy and security concerns have, in the past, meant that many schools have refrained from migrating to the (mysterious) cloud. We speak to the experts to assess cloud risks, benefits and how to set yourself up in this new digital arena

Moving to the cloud is no longer thought of as a risky step into the unknown or gaining entry to a brave new world. It has tangible benefits that include saving money and the streamlining of administrative and whole school processes, as well as encouraging collaboration in the classroom. The decision to move shouldn’t be taken lightly, however. Some schools will be better prepared than others because of their existing ICT infrastructure; by identifying a plan of action that includes strong security measures and connectivity protection bursars can put themselves in prime position to end the mystery of the cloud!

Privacy and security

Privacy and security issues remain central to any decision-making or planning related to procuring cloud services. “The majority of schools are unlikely to have big IT teams to look after security controls and policies so the management of both needs to be as simple as possible, allowing those responsible to monitor and control the cloud from a single, central platform,” says Ed Macnair, CEO at CensorNet. However, Mark Chambers, CEO at Naace, says that data security weaknesses will usually be evident in a school’s own system, rather than in the cloud. “With cloud services delivered by fewer people than the more traditional system there are consequently fewer points at which breaches can occur,” he says. “Many of the instances of errors happening in schools are ‘unintentional’ and it’s arguable that these can be reduced with good leadership and management; the vulnerabilities of cloud services are more prone to deliberate and malicious acts.”

Raza Baloch, director at Into the Cloud, says that schools can minimise security risks by starting with due diligence on cloud service providers. “Finding the right cloud service provider is hugely important. The government’s G-Cloud 8 framework agreement stipulates that a cloud provider must be accredited if they are going to carry out work with any school. Make sure your chosen provider has this accreditation.”

Neil’s prediction of what the future holds for schools and cloud services

The next challenge facing schools will be the processing of high-end software such as CAD/CAM/CAE and video rendering. This currently takes huge processing power and has to be run on a highly specified local machine.  Being able to do this in the cloud where you’re only paying for ‘CPU time’ (i.e. you’re only paying for what you use) rather than having to buy a very expensive computer means that even the most expensive solutions will be made available to all.

Planning for the big move

Where planning and infrastructure provisions are concerned changes to data protection legislative arrangements will soon prove to be of significant relevance to schools, according to Neil Watkins, managing director of Think IT.  “A key consideration for bursars to think about when transitioning to the cloud is data security and addressing who has access to what information. Shortly, every public-sector organisation will be required to have a data protection officer, which could become a significant burden for schools, especially primaries.” Guidance from the Department for Education (DfE) outlines that three main areas need to be addressed when considering cloud transition: broadband, existing ICT infrastructure and readiness to transition. For example, the department recommends ‘high download and upload speeds’ for broadband, whilst warning against ‘duplication of costs’ in the case of contracts and current commitments. “Schools will need to do a full audit of their infrastructure as a move to the cloud will, undoubtedly, put greater strains on broadband and internal network connections,” says Carl Sheen, education training consultant for Genee World. “It may require an initial investment, but the benefits and cost-savings that will follow are well worth it.” Our experts also emphasise that two other key planning decisions should be made prior to a cloud system going live: determining which security measures you’ll introduce and whether to invest in extra connectivity protection.

Cost-reduction opportunities based on a transition to the cloud, taken from the DfE’s Cloud computing services: Guidance for school leaders, school staff and governing bodies

  • Lower capital expenditure as schools no longer need to pay significant upfront costs to provide and replace their own data centres, choosing instead to reduce such costs via a subscription-based service.
  • Reducing the costs of the provision, maintenance and support of client devices. Cloud services can, under some circumstances, move much of the management and the computing resource (such as processing power and storage requirements) from the client device to the cloud computing infrastructure. This has the effect of lowering the required specification and cost of the client devices.
  • Schools should also expect to incur lower device replacement costs as technologies such as virtualisation have the potential to extend device lifespan.
  • Reducing the costs of managing and supporting their ICT infrastructure by making more effective use of available in-house technical support. Staff may be refocused away from purely technical support of a multitude of in-house systems towards supporting the uptake of the ICT, thus delivering improved benefits for teaching and the outcomes of pupils.
  • As more providers bring forward no cost (or low cost) cloud application services with enhanced communication, collaboration and online storage tools, schools can reduce their ICT costs by phasing out use of their traditional ‘local’ implementations of such services.

Making the right connections

Raza says that bursars should consider items like firewall protection, direct denial of service (DDOS) mitigation software and, for a fail-safe connection option, determine if having two internet service provider entry points is worthwhile. “If one entry point fails the other can be relied upon. A backup line will cost extra money and some schools may draw the conclusion it’s a wasted expense,” he says. “But, alas, when one connection fails, it will be a case of thinking, ‘Why didn’t we have two lines?’” For those unfamiliar with the term DDOS, it refers to a common method used by hackers to prevent users from accessing a given website. They flood a given entry point with traffic, thereby forcing a denial of service because the entry point can only handle a certain number of requests at one time.

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Returning to the subject of connectivity, Neil recommends a slightly different fail-safe option – installing fibre broadband in the ground with a 4G wireless solution as a backup. “New wireless solutions are fast enough that users won’t notice any degradation in service and prices are falling quickly so that they will shortly compete with fibre,” he explains.

Leading innovation

Raza suggests that schools are wisely taking stock of their ICT infrastructure and making cost-conscious decisions about how best to proceed. “Generally speaking, schools will begin with an online backup solution, allowing everything that they have onsite to be backed up on a server.”   Backup solutions are beneficial to the streamlining of school business processes and play a significant role in eliminating concerns over losing financial records. Damien Roberts, business development director at Derventio Education, says that the ease of access to data provided by cloud services is particularly advantageous when preparing for an inspection. “Schools can easily generate reports to demonstrate progress, whether that’s through teacher evidence or records of communication between staff members and their line managers.” Schools will also reduce their hardware costs when making a switch and curricular benefits are plentiful, as Mark points out. “Technology that was originally implemented simply to save money is now leading innovation in schools. In the classroom the cloud allows learners to stream, store and collaborate across the school, the country and the world, allowing for engagement with real-world problems.” If there’s any need for further persuasion, bursars can also improve their green credentials by dispensing with bulky servers. “As soon as you move your electricity bill will reduce immediately and energy conservation will be noticeable, particularly if you’re part of an academy chain,” Raza says.

Cloud services are well-equipped to meet financial and data security needs of schools and seem set to remain a must-have technology solution. Reservations about their performance and security belong to a past age when these services were in their infancy. So if you haven’t already switched or investigated the mystery yourself – now’s the time to do just that!

A detailed account of supplier legal obligations and requirements defining how services should be offered can be found in the G-Cloud 8 framework agreement.

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