No Need for so much JUNK!

For some time now, “cloud” has been the buzz word in IT circles from corporate to not-for-profits and schools. It’s interesting to see how large corporate IT departments have virtualized parts or all of their datacenter operations onto the cloud, how a large swath of the customer relationship management operations of important media companies is now housed on Salesforce or similar SaaS providers, and even how hospitals and other medical-service providers have cloud-enabled their entire record-keeping systems. Even more interesting to me is how many small-to-mid sized higher ed and K12 institutions rely on on-campus teams of IT specialists and still maintain on-campus datacenters or server rooms. This is such a needless expense and waste of real estate.

It’s been mentioned that academia IT usually trails corporate IT by about a decade. I feel this has been greatly reduced in the past decade, but the stament still holds true in some way. I’m not referring to the pace of purchasing new high-end gadgets, but rather the implementation of new ways of designing and delivering services. The cultural approach towards technology in the classroom is still, in great part, in the process of being discovered by senior administrators of educational institutions. Case in point, all the specialized servers and “specialist” positions in IT departments.

It used to be that to run an IT department at any school you were forced to install and maintain your own servers, and therefore hire server administrators, network administrators, communications specialists, webmaster(s), and many other folks to ensure 24×7 operation. In many small-to-mid sized institutions this is still the case. IT managers/directors maintain that in order for the operation to run smoothly you must have all of these components in-house. I disagree.

I submit that in order to properly provide services, be it admin or academic, to a school community all you really need to do is put your money into connectivity. That is, bandwidth. The more bandwidth, the better! Ensure that you have a apt appliance at the connection point in order to prevent improper use, unauthorized access, and various other adverse scenarios, but really put your money into as much bandwidth as possible.

Network authentication servers, network print services, media storage, website, databases, and any other specialized software need can be housed via virtual online servers or contracted via SaaS providerss. There is no need to have expensive, heat-generating, space hogging servers and related equipment in-house. What’s more, any and all cloud providers worth a grain of salt have their own cadre of specialists that look after the reliability of their services. Since providing a service is usually their only business, they are better equipped to handle eventualities when these arise. And yes, you can contract online/onsite back-up services and applications to ensure you never lose your data or access to it in the event of an emergency.

These are some of the systems I often use when designing and deploying network services for schools communities:

  • Amazon S3 for online data storage, be it for sharing data amongst groups or serving as a high-speed access repository for web applications. It is very, very cheap, and incredibly robust, reliably and fast.
  • Amazon EC2 for virtualized online servers of all types. Cheap compared to in-house space/servers/specialists and time invested in maintaining and upgrading your own gear.
  • Dropbox/Box for team file sharing. This could be free if planned and deployed small-scale, but will cost once you go big.
  • WordPress for incredible looking and easy to manage websites. The application is free, though you will have to contract a hosting service for the website.
  • Meraki for managing mobile devices, desktops, network switches and other communications equipment. It’s free!
  • Vimeo for storing and managing all your video needs for your website, commercial-free. Could be free, depending on your needs.
  • GoogleApps for email and document/file authoring and sharing. It’s free to any academic institution.
  • OpenDNS for Internet filtering. It is friendly, easy-to-manage and free. I cannot tell you how many headaches this service saved me in the way of virus infection prevention as all connections go through it before reaching intended sites.
  • Skype for bringing specialists into any classroom at any time via video.
  • Microsoft Live for accessing and using Office online for free.