Saturday 3 January 2015

Is Your Schools IT System Still Steam Powered?

Delivering IT using a local server infrastructure is not ideal - but that's the way we do it, so it must be right!

With hindsight there was never any serious discussion about whether a local server infrastructure was the ‘best’ way to provide an IT service to schools. It was just the only way it could be done at the time  - so that's what happened.

Its the same reasoning that provided steam-powered motor cars in the late 19C. Like computer technology in schools, personal powered transport was a good idea and it was implemented with the technology available at the time.

Fortunately for both the travelling public and for education, technology tends to improve and become far more efficient you wait long enough.  Cars got the internal combustion engine and schools got Software as a Service (SaaS).

A typical on-premise IT installation
There are only two reasons for maintaining a system on-site unless you really like messing with the valves and whistles.

  • Speed and ease of access to data. 
  • Physical control of the data. 
On reflection how real are those advantages?

There can little no doubt that accessing a file from a networked drive is quicker than accessing it from cloud storage although there are some assumptions in this statement.

In many cases the data referenced in SaaS is simply being accessing as part of the integrated application storage (WeVideo) or passed directly between cloud providers (WeVideo -> Google Drive) using channels larger the schools LAN.

Also the SaaS file access method is completely different to traditional LAN protocols and is optimised for low bandwidth (Google Drive). Local caching can deliver local speeds for larger media files from providers such as YouTube and Vimeo as well as software updates from both Google and Apple. Most cloud storage (Google Drive, OneDrive) support caching to local storage.

The time taken to access a file should also be see as part of the whole user experience which includes logging on, loading a user profile, opening the file , saving the file, logging off and writing the profile back. With this as the benchmark its unlikely that the experience of using a Chromebook/iPad/Android tablet with a SaaS service would exceed local file access to such a degree as to make it impractical.

Ultimately the speed of access is going to be controlled by the bandwidth of the ISP connection. At the moment the speed that's affordable for a small schools in the UK is 50-100Mbs. However its conceivable that the money saved from decommissioning or cancelling the upgrade of a server farm could offset the cost of faster internet link.

As far as ease of access is concerned this is only true for students who are onsite and using Microsoft Windows clients. For those wishing to access files remotely a local store is a massive disadvantage.

As the move to mobility and flexibility in learning gains momentum the local data store presented as a Windows share looks increasingly out of place, demanding multiple layers of software (VPN, RDS, WebDav) to support a wider range of devices.

The point is, whatever objections can be leveled at SaaS based storage these will be solved by time as bandwidth costs reduce.  Technology is only moving in one direction and that's away from locally hosted services.

Complexity and 'steam power' is natures way of telling you there is an better solution !

So if SaaS is the solution, whats the problem?

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