Varsity in the clouds

November 2011

 

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BEN KEPES presents CloudU, an initiative aimed at bridging the gap between cloud computing and businesses with the potential to impact on educational settings.

 

Ben Kepes is an analyst, entrepreneur and business adviser. His business interests include a diverse range of industries from manufacturing to property to technology. As a commentator he has a broad presence both in the traditional media and extensively online, covering the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

I’ve spent the better part of 20 years owning and running small businesses in New Zealand and, while I’d never consider myself an “IT person”, by necessity in that time I’ve had to have a significant involvement in maintaining all the varied IT systems small businesses need. From telephone systems to software, from servers to data backup, the range of activities a small business has to deal with is just as broad as those of a large enterprise – only a small business doesn’t have the resources to have well-trained staff on hand to deal with these systems full-time.

It seems to me that many educational organisations are in much the same predicament – constrained in terms of both financial and staffing resources, having to build and maintain secure and robust systems, and without much of an appetite to spend precious time on systems instead of other educational matters.

Given my history, and the fact that I’ve always had a little bit of a bent to technology, it’s not surprising that the advent of cloud computing got me interested in what this new technology can offer. I got excited about the Cloud and was made to realise firstly just how powerful the move to cloud computing can be and secondly, the fact that small and medium businesses are so busy keeping up with day-to-day activities that they really don’t have time to educate themselves on what the Cloud means for them.

With this realisation, I decided to do something about the gap, and launched CloudU, a comprehensive educational series aimed at increasing cloud awareness among ‘mum and dad’ businesses. It’s my belief that the lessons we’re giving to business owners are also eminently applicable to school administrators. Despite being sponsored to create the content by Rackspace hosting in the US, the content is vendor neutral, aimed at building knowledge rather than selling any product per se.

So what is cloud computing, and why is it applicable to an educational setting? The easiest way to understand cloud computing is to think of it as a utility model: in the same way that we obtain our electricity on tap, not thinking about where it comes from or having to invest in the infrastructure to receive it, similarly cloud computing allows us to get IT resources – be this software or the underlying infrastructure – as a utility resource.

One way that makes cloud computing more readily understood is to use the acronym OSSM. Cloud computing is technology that is:

  • On-demand: the server or software is already set up and ready to be deployed
  • Self-service: the customer chooses what they want, when they want it
  • Scalable: customers can choose how much they want and ramp up if necessary
  • Measurable: there’s metering/reporting so you know you are getting what you pay for.

 

So how does this apply to educational settings, and what specific benefits can these organisations obtain by a move to the Cloud? The CEO of New Zealand-based online accounting vendor Xero has written a paper looking at the benefits of online software for schools. In his report he contends that cloud computing (or more particularly, online accounting) can deliver the following benefits to schools:

  • Online applications are more secure than emailing financial data or giving out discs with financial data on it
  • Unlike desktop applications, data isn’t stored on school computers, so when experiencing hardware difficulties, or if computers are stolen, staff can still access school data from another computer
  • It’s no longer necessary to rely on outdated backup systems which are often insecure and unreliable
  • No server hardware is required in schools
  • Support and audits can be managed remotely
  • It is easy to proactively monitor schools remotely and outside of school hours.

 

Despite the benefits of cloud computing to educational organisations, there is very little vendor-neutral resource available with which non-technical or mildly technical people can learn about the opportunities and challenges that cloud computing raises.

This is where I – and a handful of others like me – come in. With my experience running cloud computing conferences and community events around Australia and
New Zealand, I was all too aware of the value of building knowledge in a “by the people, for the people” way. I’ve developed CloudU to take this approach and deliver material in different formats such as reports, seminars, a certification programme and community aspects. I’ve adopted a broad perspective in the hope that, by taking this approach, we’re able to really make an impact on cloud awareness among the general population.

I invite educationalists and those involved in running schools to have a look at the content we’ve developed; I would be more than happy to talk with anyone about moving to the Cloud.