Cirrus, stratus, cumulus, nimbus…the digital cloud

St Helen and St Katharine, Abingdon, is an independent girls’ school with a digital difference – they’ve moved all of their IT infrastructure to the cloud – the cost-efficient, space-saving cloud. Richard Cornell, information security manager and technical architect at RM Education, discusses the innovation behind the move and Raza Baloch, MD at Into the Cloud, offers advice for schools considering a similar move

It is fast becoming the IT destination of choice and the benefits are clear – the cloud is a means of improving the delivery of education and securing cost-effective improvements for schools. But there are some essential conditions that must be in place before you make your move. Broadband speed, wifi effectiveness, reliability and capacity must all be addressed before you consider migrating, as well as how compatible your existing ICT infrastructure is with new technology. Additionally, you will need to consider existing contracts and commitments and your future digital strategy in order to avoid crossovers and duplications. Finally, the whole school must be ready to transition.

St Helen and St Katharine

The process started when a conversation with a large tech company revealed a joint desire to pilot moving a school’s on-premise server to the cloud – and RM’s Richard Cornell knew of just the school. “From our earliest engagement with St Helen and St Katherine’s (SHSK) we knew they had a vision to make as much use of the cloud as possible,” he says. Their existing ICT provision, staff skills and experience fitted with the proposed cloud provider meaning that the school didn’t need to change their existing digital setup. SHSK also had an impressive 1Gbps broadband connection and backup line, which made it ideal.

Navigating – and costing – the route to the cloud

The project – processes and anticipated outcomes – was presented to John Hunt, SHSK’s director of staff and IT, who agreed it was a good move for the school; it met their ‘cloud ambitions’ and they agreed to go ahead. “That was the easy part,” Richard recalls. The challenge for Richard was to enrol in the required cloud services provider (CSP) programme and work out how to move the school’s servers to the cloud in a way that made long-term financial sense for SHSK. “For schools considering a similar move finding the right CSP is an important step; this might be your network manager, an existing provider or a new provider whose area of expertise is cloud services,” Raza Baloch, MD at Into the Cloud, advises.

Working out how much it would cost to put the SHSK servers in the cloud required extensive research, analysis of existing servers and gauging the spec required by the school. One particularly cost-efficient aspect of cloud services is that they’re scaleable,” Raza points out. “You define the needs of your school and tailor your cloud provision to meet these.” To provide an accurate estimate for SHSK Richard considered how much additional storage, virtual gateway (VPN), data transfer and transactions the school would consume – factors that impact overall and on-going costs because, on most cloud computing platforms, things are charged by the hour or MB. Prices vary based on which data centre you choose so it’s good to know that you can suspend some services when they’re not needed – which can save 30% on some items – while other services have to run at all times.

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Presenting a case for the cloud

Based on the spec of the school’s existing servers Richard calculated the costs of the resources required and drew up a proposal. This assumed that, of the 23 servers the school was using, two were no longer needed and would be decommissioned, another two would be rendered obsolete by moving data to online storage platforms, three would be consolidated and others made redundant by moving other services to cloud equivalents – for example, moving browser-based management systems to a cloud based version. That left the school with up to nine servers to move to the cloud and three on-premise.

Richard’s proposal compared the cost of moving to the cloud with replacing SHSK’s existing on-premise hardware; his estimate over a five-year period demonstrated that a move to the cloud platform was better value for the school. “This comes down to CapEx vs Opex – one-off capital expenditure as opposed to on-going operational expenditure,” Raza says. He explains that cloud provision falls into the ongoing category, the benefits being that upgrades are standard, you can scale according to your needs – ideal if you are considering expansion – and you needn’t worry about hardware getting damaged as it’s stored elsewhere and backed-up in default cloud servers.

Moving on up…to the cloud

The next task for SHSK was to work out how to configure the cloud platform and decide on the technical steps required to move servers from the on-premise network – this will be a task for your network manager or external CSP. Richard points out that schools hold a great deal of sensitive data. “It’s important that security rules to protect the virtual network are created, “he says and Raza advises that schools can minimise security risks by starting with due diligence on cloud service providers. Admin rights can be set by your network manager, perhaps with the help of your CSP, and will define who has permission to access what information.

SHSK already benefited from a robust IT infrastructure – which brought both positives and negatives. A positive was that the school’s existing router was a supported device with sufficient capacity. It’s prudent that your internet service provider (ISP) is involved as they may have to reconfigure your firewall settings to allow virtual servers to communicate with school servers, and vice versa. This was an issue encountered at SHSK – one of their negatives – but, once overcome, it was time to move on and complete the migration.

On cloud 9

SHSK were fortunate to have the assistance of a cloud expert – and enthusiast – to guide them through the process and secure a cost-efficient solution that met their needs and suited their existing infrastructure. No two schools are the same and no two clouds are the same either – each brings its own benefits, challenges and costs. For now, schools may opt to use a mix of public – such as an online educational resource – and private – for example, a hosted management system – cloud services, but it’s clear that a key element of a school’s ICT strategy should be how the cloud can best support the effective delivery of its ICT provision.

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