Created on 17 September 2014

What does “cloud computing” mean?

“Cloud computing” is the term used to describe the hosting and delivery of IT applications and services remotely, for example, from a remote data centre via the Internet or a multi organisation Wide Area Network, as opposed to installing and running them on Local Area Networks and devices. Hosted services and data – stored in a public or private “cloud” – can be accessed for “anytime, anywhere” availability from potentially any device.

A “public cloud” is where services are provided over a public network, such as the Internet. A “private cloud” is where services are delivered over a closed, private trusted network, such as those provided by Regional Broadband Consortia (RBCs) and local authorities for schools and other organisations. The private cloud model offers a much higher degree of privacy and security, delivering services over a bespoke, managed infrastructure – important considerations in an educational setting. Internet based public cloud services reside in the public domain and so transfers between them and the user are less secure or have to be encrypted.

More and more services and applications are moving to being provided remotely (becoming cloud based). For example, both Google and Microsoft now offer internet cloud-based office productivity suites (word processors, spreadsheets etc.) in the form of Google Apps and Office365. Private cloud based services such as SharePoint based virtual learning environments (VLEs) have been used in many schools for several years. Internet based cloud based data storage services (such as Microsoft’s Skydrive and Google Drive) are increasingly popular. Mobile apps for smartphones, tablets and other devices facilitate simple access to and synchronisation of files and folders across multiple devices, while services such as Apple’s iTunes/iCloud and Google Play offer cloud storage and access for music and films.

 

What are the benefits of cloud computing for schools?

Cloud computing offers a number of advantages, but there are a number of issues to consider too:

  • Cloud delivery negates the need to install, maintain and run applications on individual devices: instead, applications can be accessed from any connected device. For Internet delivered public cloud services, the device has to have an Internet connection; for private cloud WAN based services, there has to be a connection to the WAN either directly or remotely. Either approach removes the need to keep locally installed applications up-to-date, easing administration and support.
  • Applications and data can be accessed from anywhere with appropriate connectivity. The increasing availability and bandwidths of both fixed and mobile broadband services, together with the proliferation of mobile devices such as laptops, smartphones and tablets, offers reliable, flexible access to cloud services from homes and elsewhere. Cloud services can complement bring your own device (BYOD) developments and opportunities very effectively. However, in any BYOD implementation, the issues of e-safety and filtering are paramount for schools, both for when a device connects directly or wirelessly to a school provided Internet service or accesses the Internet directly through its own connectivity.
  • Internet cloud computing frees users from being reliant upon on removable storage media such as flash drives, DVDs and CDs and lets them work online with their applications, files and data from any Internet-connected device, whether at home, at school or indeed any location where public Internet connectivity is available. Again it must be recognised that with this flexibility come additional e-safety and e-security risks in terms of inappropriate access to and loss of school data.
  • Both public and private cloud delivery also removes many requirements for local server infrastructures in schools; for example, using a cloud-based email service negates the need for an institution to maintain its own mail server. However
  • Cloud services can facilitate easy collaboration and communication via a consistent set of tools and services across an institution, locality or region. They also offer a close fit with single sign-on developments, with users able to access their portfolio of applications and data from anywhere via a single username and password.
  • The cloud marketplace is diverse and is maturing rapidly, with a number of cloud services specifically tailored for educational use, such as Microsoft’s Office365 Education and Google Apps for Education.
  • Additional benefits include increased scalability, agility and flexibility, as cloud services are designed to be able to scale to meet demand. The cloud model allows new applications to be deployed swiftly and easily and can enable a longer lifecycle for hardware, which only needs to be capable of running a current web browser to access cloud services successfully.

 

What needs to be in place to support cloud computing?

Reliable, high performance broadband and/or Internet connectivity are essential for cloud computing. While some cloud services support offline access to an extent, users are dependent upon broadband connections in order to access applications and services hosted in the cloud. Cloud services can place a significant load on school networks and broadband connections, particularly in larger schools where large numbers of pupils and staff are likely to require simultaneous, concurrent access to cloud services. The use of cloud services requires both good upstream and downstream bandwidths to be available. Consideration also needs to be given to the security of users’ files and data when stored in public cloud services , an aspect addressed directly by private cloud services. Consideration needs to be given to the ease with which institutions can switch between cloud service providers should they wish to do so, and the costs and effort of transferring content from one provider to another in the event of a change of supplier.

RBCs, local authorities and Janet have a long and successful track record of brokering tailored service offerings for schools. Many with regional WANs and data centres have provided secure private cloud based services for many years. Being part of an RBC- or local authority-delivered solution means schools can access a tailored portfolio of private cloud services for education, via a dedicated, managed private infrastructure. RBCs and local authorities can also offer advice and guidance for schools considering public cloud services as well.

Additional issues and risks to consider:

  • Institutions moving to a cloud delivery model need to ensure that all legislative obligations in relation to the security of personal data are met – what safeguards does your service provider offer in this regard? Schools should carefully assess the risks involved in handling and controlling access to all levels of information.
  • All schools must understand the implications of not securing the information assets they hold and should look to appoint a Senior Information Risk Officer (SIRO) with responsibility for ensuring compliance with the Data Protection Act 1998. YHGfL have published detailed advice on data security for schools ; archived advice from Becta may also be of assistance.
  • Cloud services increase schools’ dependence on internal and external network connectivity – reliability, capacity, scalability are prerequisites if cloud services are to be used successfully; are your institution’s local area network and broadband connection capable of supporting a move to cloud-based delivery?
  • Upload bandwidth needs to be considered as well as download. Multiple users accessing multiple tools and services simultaneously will place a heavy load on school networks and connectivity, and users will expect the same responsiveness from cloud services that they have come to expect from locally installed applications.
  • What service levels and guarantees are in place to ensure reliable access and continuity of services, both in terms of the cloud services themselves and the infrastructure necessary to access them?
  • How will cloud services integrate with wider institutional ICT infrastructure? Can the cloud services and applications you want to use be configured in accordance with your institution’s particular requirements?
  • Exit strategies are important: how will you avoid lock-in to ensure you can switch to another service provider should services prove unsatisfactory? Look at contract terms and service levels carefully and make sure you fully understand all likely costs.
  • It should be noted that any apparent cost reductions (for example, in relation to the reduced requirement for hardware upgrades and new software licensing) may be offset by cost increases in others (for example, in relation to migration costs and staff retraining).
  • It should be remembered that all interactions with public cloud based services are via the internet and are not as secure private cloud services.
  • It should be noted that not all applications and services are suitable for delivery via the cloud; applications which require a significant amount of local processing power (such as CAD/CAM applications) will still need to be run locally on hardware designed specifically for such use.
  • Check current software and educational licence conditions to ensure that they are not breached by using a cloud service. Ensure that your contractual liabilities are reflected in the contract with your cloud provider.
  • Identify confidential material and assess whether the cloud is the most suitable place to store and work with it. Check that the cloud provider’s security and access terms meet your needs.

From Guidance on the use of cloud computing – checklist of cloud computing & personal data considerations:

Guidance on cloud computing

Also see JISC Legal Cloud Computing and the Law Toolkit

 

Sources of further advice and guidance

NB: the following links are provided for information only; the inclusion of a link in this list does not imply endorsement by the NEN, nor does exclusion imply the reverse.

Guidance Notes explain concisely a particular aspect of the broadband services that schools need to deliver education. The Education Network cannot accept responsibility for the application of these ideas to individual schools and local expert advice should be sought.

Audience: Bursars, Network Managers, Technical Support Staff.

Schools may re-use this material, providing that NEN is acknowledged.

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