Moving to the cloud
Moving to the cloud will save money, lighten your workload and give your more flexibility. Yet there is plenty of work to do before you will see the benefit. Cloud computing may be easier than managing your own servers but switching is rarely trivial.
Preparing your school for the move
Before you move, you need to be clear about where you are going and what you aim to achieve. It’s a good idea to get the key people who will work with your cloud systems involved at the earliest possible stage. They are the ones who will need to make everything work. Depending on the number of people involved, set up a team to help you plan and move.
Which cloud are you?
There are different types of cloud offerings to consider. One or more might be right for your school. The main options are:
- Software-as-a-Service(SaaS). This is where you buy applications served from the cloud. Some of the best known examples are Gmail, Xero accounting and Microsoft Office 365. With SaaS you don’t need to worry about running servers or any day-to-day management. The downside is you have less, or even no, opportunity to customise the software to meet specific requirements. SaaS usually means paying a monthly or annual bill based on the number of people using the software.
- Platform-as-a-Service(PaaS). This lets you run your own apps on a cloud server. It means you don’t worry about looking after hardware or software infrastructure. It requires a little more work and expertise to set up, but is a good choice if SaaS can’t meet your needs. Buying app licences can be cheaper than SaaS subscriptions if you have a lot of users.
- Infrastructure-as-a-Service(IaaS). Is more complicated. It could be more than you need and requires considerable expertise to set up and maintain. Even understanding IaaS invoices can be hard going for non-experts. On the plus side IaaS gives you full control over your computing. It’s much like running your own servers without having any hardware.
RubyGarage has a great analogy to make this clearer.
People who sell cloud services may tell you it is straightforward. It can be if you’re lucky, but even moving to SaaS can be tricky in some circumstances.
Take your time both before and during the move. Don’t try to rush it. You need to plan ahead. The move will also cost money. How much time and money you’ll spend depends on your existing set-up, where you are heading and how much you intend to switch over during the move.
It’s worth remembering you don’t have to move everything to the cloud at the same time. Many organisations switch to the cloud move one set of functions at time. They bed that stage down and then move to the next stage. This works especially well if moving from say, a mail server to cloud email.
Plan for a smooth transition
Also keep in mind that a switch to the cloud will disrupt normal operations for a few hours, days in some cases. While this is troublesome for companies, schools have the advantage of being able to make a switch over a weekend or outside of term time.
Many organisations get professional help moving to the cloud. You should consider this. While it costs money, it can work out a lot cheaper in the long run. Professional help can also speed up the move.
There are different levels of hand-holding to choose from. SaaS companies don’t always offer enough help to customers planning to move. If you’re moving to PaaS you might expect more support. There are also migration tools, usually software to help you move data from local apps to cloud apps.
Back-up before moving
Every technology project comes with some risk. Moving to the cloud is no different. If that worries you, consider this: There are also risks in not moving to the cloud. Most people who work in this area will tell you it is a risk worth taking. The good news is that there are many things you can do to reduce the risk.
In extreme cases, the migration itself can go wrong. You can guard against this risk by backing-up your existing data first. It’s not enough to make back-ups. You also need to check you can retrieve the data you think you’ve backed up before going ahead.
Cloud has been around for more than a decade. You won’t be the first organisation to make a specific move. That means there’s a wealth of expertise from people who have been through the same thing already.
You may find case studies published online. Better still, find another school that has been through a similar move. It would pay to get in touch with them and discuss your plans. At the very least you’ll be able to avoid any mistakes they made.
Bill Bennett is an experienced editor and journalist specialising in technology and business. He has worked for New Zealand and international newspapers including the NZ Herald and The Australian Financial Review. He is also a regular technology commentator on RNZ Nine-to-Noon.