Thursday 17 November 2016

Can SaaS solve the IT problems in your school?

Unlike some other ‘fads’, Software as a Service (SaaS)  is not a solution in search of a problem. It has real benefits that address a wide range of issues that schools face supporting IT on a day to day basis.

Many schools are already committed users of SaaS through Office365 for Education, G Suite for Education or some other externally hosted web based service.

In the early days SaaS was seen as a ‘cut down’ option that solved specific issues with local infrastructure but was essentially limited in function. This is no longer true and it can be argued that given the choice adopting SaaS is the best strategy for the reasons below.

 Scalability and Accessibility.
For the first time smaller schools can access the same sophisticated software that was once only available to schools that had an IT budget to run the local infrastructure to support it.  This is because a SaaS solution is inherently scalable in both directions. A design that is suitable for ten students can scale up to hundreds without any consideration of hardware or software upgrades.

Compare this with a traditional on-premise solution which has limitations at every level including storage, memory, processing and software licensing blocks. Seamless expansion is normally allowed for by over-specifying the solution during the initial purchase on the grounds that subsequent upgrades are ‘expensive’ which leads to inefficiencies and waste.

SaaS also avoids the financial time bomb that is the hardware upgrade cycle.

This point hardly needs stressing to anybody who has visited a school that that has installed  local infrastructure in the last ten years but still runs the same set of servers because they could never afford to replace them.  A solution that eliminates the need for servers altogether is more likely to be successful in the long term than one that simply replaces one set of servers for another.

Local infrastructure has become far too complicated for most schools to manage.

When schools operated a single file and print server with staff mailboxes the situation was manageable but the pressure on establishments to provide ever more sophisticated IT services along with the adoption of the internet as a teaching tool has meant that facility members rarely have the broad breadth of knowledge or the time to support IT.

The basic skills required to operate a small to medium sized school now requires an understanding of Layer 3 switching, server virtualisation, the basic principles of shared storage, secure wireless protocols, Microsoft Group Policy management, imaging techniques, patch management, antivirus software, backup packages, tape media devices, application deployment, edge security, remote access, content filtering and a whole range of disparate software packages all of which claim to reduce the “management overhead” but in reality only adds to it.

All this is before a new wave of requirements around iPad integration, mobile device management, ‘everywhere learning’, ‘flipped classrooms’, BYOD, 1:1 programs and the windows desktop replacement program hits the shore.

Surely what any school requires is a system that's easy to understand and can administrated and maintained by the facility team without any specialised skills. This is what SaaS can deliver.

At the moment I predict two possible scenarios for the future.

In the first schools follow a traditional route and initiate a server replacement program combined with a support contract supported by the onsite IT team.  After five years the hardware will be so expensive to replace and upgrade that the issue will be ignored and they will end up with the same problem they had before, only it’ll be much larger and cost more to fix.

A more likely scenario is that the teachers will become disillusioned and start independent initiatives to make use of an increasing number of cheap, easy to use SaaS services that bypass the school infrastructure altogether. At some point in the future the school will not be able to understand how so much money was invested in  an energy hungry, air conditioned on-premise server farm that doesn't even run the software and services the school now depends on.

Serverless School

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