Cloud Watching #1 – Cloud 101

This article is the first in a series on Cloud computing, and focusses on the basics – the “what, why and how” of Cloud computing as it relates to Schooling.


When New South Wales Department of Education and Training (DET), the largest School District in the Southern Hemisphere, wanted to put an annual Science Standard Attainment test online they faced a simple choice – $200,000 for server infrastructure or $500 to use a Cloud computing service from Microsoft. Watch the video here to find out what the NSW DET gained from their implementation: 


We don’t normally expect a schooling system to generate its own electricity. There’s no building with a bank of generators, no “Manager of Electrical Generation”, leading a team of technicians. But we have expected our schooling systems to be experts at running their own “IT Power Stations”, generating their own utility service.


So why not provide computing power in the same way as electricity? “Cloud-based” IT services can be “generated” remotely by a factory-size bank of powerful computers (“servers”) and delivered over the internet to subscribing consumers who can take as much, or as little as they need.

Cloud computing changes the game of delivering schooling services by addressing the following challenges:

The Scale Challenge

Schooling has scaling issues like no other service. With 1.2bn learners, 55m teachers, and 4.3m institutions, schooling represents one of the biggest single human enterprises on the planet. Providing cost effective learning services to entire populations is one of the opportunities that Cloud computing potentially addresses.

The Cost and Seasonality Challenge

Students are typically only in their physical school environment for 15% of the year. Schooling services undergo huge peaks and troughs, on daily, weekly, monthly and annual basis. When schooling systems run their own IT services, they have to pay for these whether they are being used or not.

Currency, Relevance and Interoperability

The next problem that schooling systems face is the rate of progress and change in IT. Choices usually come down to either to systems stagnating and providing out of date services, or enormous cost just to keep pace with change. Technology is advancing so fast that a student leaving a secondary school is likely to be comfortably using technology that did not exist when they started.


Cloud computing addresses these issues through three main kinds of business models:

Software as a Service (SaaS)

Subscription based or free Cloud application services deliver Software as a Service (SaaS) over the Internet, eliminating the need to install and run the application on the customer’s own computers, and simplifying maintenance and support. Activities are managed from central locations rather than at each customer’s site, enabling customers to access applications remotely via the Web. Click here for more details, or here for architectural guidance.

Microsoft SaaS offers include:

Live@Edu – insitutions can use their own domain names to provide students with a complete “consumer” set of e-mail, collaboration and storage services. Live@Edu will be superceded by Office 365 for Education

Microsoft Business Productivity Online Suite delivers a suite of services for hosted communication and collaboration. 

Microsoft Exchange Hosted Services – filtering, archiving, encryption, and continuity.

Microsoft Dynamics CRM Online, student relationship management, automate workflows and centralized information.

Windows Live – worldwide there are 500 million Windows Live users using a package of comms, collab and storage services

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)

With “Infrastructure as a Service” (IaaS), customers get on-demand computing and storage to host, scale, and manage applications and services. IaaS delivers computer infrastructure – typically a platform virtualization environment – as a service. Rather than purchasing servers, software, data-centre space and network equipment, customers buy those resources as fully outsourced services. Suppliers typically bill such services based on a utility computing basis and amount of resources consumed – therefore the cost will typically reflect the level of activity. Click here for more details.

Microsoft IaaS offers include the following Datacentre tools for in-house or external service provision:

System Center – dynamically pool, allocate, and manage virtualized resources

Windows Server – provides a foundation for data centre services, including web-apps, power management, and server and desktop virtualization between on-premises, private cloud, and public cloud computing

Dynamic Data Center Toolkit for Hosters allows you to create a private or public cloud offering, including services for provisioning and managing servers

Platform as a Service (PaaS)

“Platform as a Service” (PaaS) delivers a computing platform and/or solution stack as a service. PaaS facilitates deployment of applications without the cost and complexity of buying and managing the underlying hardware and software layers. Typically, customers (such as NSW DET) will rent a set amount of capacity for specific periods of time, and turn their applications on or off and scale according to demand. They will only get billed for the time and capacity consumed. Delivering an annual test online for example, becomes significantly more cost effective through PaaS than through other means. Click here for more details.

Microsoft PaaS offers include the following:

Windows Azure platform is a version of Windows that runs in Microsoft datacentres. It includes SQL Azure (database) to enables applications and services to be run in the Cloud.

AppFabric provides a range of services including access control; connections between applications in the cloud; caching; integration; and APIs for developing and hosting an application on Azure

Bing Maps a complete set of geo-data services enabling functions such as visualisation of enrollment trends, or tracking assets such as buses.

Microsoft .NET – programming enironment for writing applications across a variety of devices, application types, and programming tasks.


Cloud offers a way to tackle the issues of cost, scale, change, currency, relevance and interoperability and flexibility of demand. In addition Cloud services, by their nature, tend to be designed for reach, and work across multiple open standard based devices. Cloud services are designed to run at internet scale supporting millions of users at prices of an order of magnitude lower than traditional solutions.

The cost of migrating between versions, or staying up-to-date is outsourced to the Cloud service provider. This also has the effect of removing capital expenditure (Capex) from IT provision and transferring to an operational expenditure (Opex) model that does not have the same associated peaks and troughs.

Cloud services are designed to be simple to deploy, provision and deprovision. Indeed when using platform as a service you only pay for the services you are using, while you are actually using them, which fits perfectly with education’s seasonality.


With significant advantage comes a degree of disadvantage and risks, which should be carefully considered. These can be summarised as follows:

  • The risks of outsourcing
  • Storing data outside the institution or organisation
  • Service provider tie-in

For a an excellent and unbiased guide outlining the advanatages and disadvantages of the Cloud, download – “The Benefits and Risks of Cloud Platforms: A Guide for Business Leaders” by David Chappell.


Most on-premises applications will not have been built with Cloud architecture in mind, so the first set of decisions focus on what kind of of architecture you want. For example, a key consideration here is whether to use a multi-tenent model – ie a single instance of the software serving multiple client organizations.

There are several resources available to help with migrating to the Cloud  including:



Live@Edu has 10s of millions of accounts, proving that Cloud models can deliver quality services at massive scale. Aside from New South Wales DET, many schooling and learning services organisations around the world are beginning to take advantage of Cloud computing – for example, The Kentucky Department of Education moved more than 800,000 peopl to Live@Edu – a move that will help them save more than $6.3 million over the next four years. Florida Virtual School saved $2 Million by switching to BPOS.  Another interesting use of Cloud technology comes from Eduify – a small company providing research and writing assistance to students. Read the case study here.


Thanks to Brad Tipp for his input.

David Chappell has some excellent Cloud resources on his blog and a great summary of Cloud Platforms



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