Infrastructure

Tapping Into ‘Cloud’ Power

By Katie Ash — June 16, 2009 4 min read

It’s seemed lately that a day does not go by without school IT professionals talking enthusiastically about “cloud computing” on tech blogs, in online discussion forums, or through e-mail exchanges with colleagues.

What is cloud computing? And why has it become such a hot topic?

Cloud computing generally refers to the outsourcing of computing power to external servers, or data centers, that are then accessed over the Internet on an as-needed basis for a host of applications, from e-mail to instructional tools.

Ed-tech leaders’ interest in cloud computing is growing because they see it as an effective way to cut down on the cost of acquiring and maintaining information technology, to provide students with a greater array of software they need for school, and to encourage collaboration as cloud computing allows files to be accessed by many computers, rather than just one.

Scalability is one of the biggest advantages of cloud computing, says Armando Fox, an adjunct professor for the Reliable Adaptive Distributed Systems Lab, or RAD Lab, at the University of California, Berkeley.

For example, when deadlines for school projects approach, computer labs may fill up, but between those periods of high use, the labs may sit idle for months, he says. Instead of paying for the ongoing maintenance of computers even when they are not being used, cloud computing makes it possible for schools to pay for the servers when they are needed and reduce the service when the demand for computer use lessens.

But cloud computing could raise some legal concerns, says Fox, in regard to privacy and ownership of data.

When a university owns the computers, the servers, and the network that its e-mail system runs on, for example, the university has clear control over the privacy and ownership of that data. But if the e-mail system is stored on outside servers, privacy and ownership are murkier, especially if the data was requested in a legal situation, he says.

“The law is very far behind,” Fox says, in keeping up with the legal implications of new technologies.

Free Instructional Tools

“Cloud computing” can also be used to describe Web applications that allow users to store large amounts of information, often for free, says this year’s K-12 edition of the “Horizon Report,” a technology trend study published by the Austin, Texas-based New Media Consortium, a nonprofit group of about 300 organizations that tracks the effect of new media and technologies on education. The report lists cloud computing as a “technology to watch.”

The approach can also lower costs by allowing users to tap into a network of servers that can provide large amounts of disk storage and computing power as well as the ability to accommodate more, or fewer, users at any given time, says the report.

Another advantage of cloud computing is that the information stored through cloud-based applications can be accessed from any computer, as long as it has an Internet connection, says Rachel S. Smith, the vice president of services for the New Media Consortium and a member of the advisory board for the “Horizon Report.”

That ability supports collaboration by allowing multiple people to access the same documents and files, rather than confining documents to one person’s computer, she says.

Scores of cloud-computing Web sites have been created, says Brian C. Dvorak, a technology-integration specialist for the 80,000-student Fresno Unified School District in California and the founder and chief executive officer of cloudtrip.com. That site collects and sorts cloud-based applications into categories to help educators find useful tools for the classroom.

Cloudtrip.com provides links to a variety of tools, from online gradebooks and class lists, to virtual desktops, to image- and video-editing programs.

However, K-12 schools are still several years away from fully tapping into the technology, says Smith, in large part because “a lot of cloud-computing applications are routinely blocked” by school Internet filters, she says. This is because cloud-computing applications often involve social-networking elements, which make it difficult to control whom students are interacting with and protect the information that they post.

Pay-as-You-Go

At the operational level, cloud computing essentially allows the user to tap into computer servers through a pay-as-you-go model, much like the use of electricity, says Lorenzo Mejia, the senior executive vice president of operators business and the chief financial officer of SIMtone Corp., a Durham, N.C.-based company that provides cloud-computing services to schools, as well as other businesses.

For schools, that means that although they would still need monitors and keyboards, the cost of maintaining and keeping up with the server hardware could be shifted to an outside vendor, reducing overall IT maintenance costs and the workload of the IT administrator, Mejia says.

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