Cloud computing is using remote computers for jobs that were once done by local machines.

We call it cloud because the computers are somewhere else on the internet. Most of the time you don’t need to know where they are.

When the idea was first developed, people would draw diagrams to illustrate how it worked. They used pictures of clouds to show the remote computers could be anywhere. The image and the metaphor stuck.

Cloud means network computers
Cloud replaces servers. These were, in some cases still are, the computers that organise network traffic, store data and parcel out work to devices like printers. It may help to think of them as hubs.

Because servers are computers, they can also run applications. This lightens the load on desktop or laptop computers. Today, cloud servers handle so much everyday computer processing that you can often get away with less powerful hardware on your desktop or in your hand. This explains the rising popularity of less expensive devices like Chromebook or tablets. They leave cloud computers to do their heavy lifting.

Schools can save money
Less expensive devices are not the only way cloud computing saves money. When schools ran servers, they had to invest in hardware and buy software licences. They also needed people to run them.

Someone had to look after security, manage backups, turn it off and on again after a breakdown and so on. Schools also had to find suitable space to house systems and pay the power bill.

All these expenses are now taken care of by cloud providers. They package them into a monthly cloud bill. It may not be so important for schools, but for a business, cloud moves costs from capital expenditure to operational expenses. This can be a big help.

Because cloud service providers buy everything in bulk they pay far less. They pass some savings on to their customers. Likewise, cloud’s scale means they can hire experts to manage arrays of cloud servers. The cost savings are often significant. While they vary from case to case, over time a cloud user might pay a fraction of the cost of doing things themselves.

Reduced workload
Even when the cost savings are not huge, cloud reduces the management overhead.
Cloud takes day-to-day responsibility off staff. They don’t need to spend time and energy thinking through problems that no longer exist. This was distracting. With cloud, teachers can get on with their main job: teaching or otherwise running schools.

One important cloud computing idea is that you can buy it like you’d buy any utility, say power or water. Schools don’t usually need to operate and maintain generators or reservoirs. They can buy electricity or water as when they need it.

Cloud computing works the same way. It means schools don’t have to build extra computer capacity to cope with peak load. There’s an overhead connection charge, but otherwise cloud is often a pay-as-you-go service. If you need an extra server for a week or two, it costs a few dollars, not thousands.

New options
Other things become possible when you move to the cloud. Often you are not locked in to a limited range of suppliers. You can pick and mix applications and services to better meet your needs.

There’s another important word that comes with cloud: service. Cloud computing is a service delivered over the internet. You buy it from a cloud service provider. Your service provider looks after the upgrades and maintenance. You can also buy software as a service. This is sometimes called SaaS. It is possible to run a SaaS application like, say, Google Docs or Microsoft Word even if you don’t use cloud servers. That can be a good way of easing into the cloud.

A key advantage of SaaS is that you can log-in from anywhere, you don’t have to be at the workplace. Up to a point the same applies to everything in the cloud. You can even access cloud apps from a mobile phone while you are on the move.

Things to consider when moving to the cloud

  • Cloud needs a solid network connection. Today’s networks are reliable, but make plans for network failure. This could mean keeping some local storage.
  • Choose your cloud partner or partners wisely. Make sure that you can easily get data out if you decide that partner is no longer right for you.
  • Look for services where you can verify that you get exactly what you pay for. Ideally there will be guarantees that you won’t be landed with a surprising large bill.
  • Check the software you use most will still work when you move to the cloud and that it communicates well with your cloud services. If moving to the cloud means changing software, test it extensively before moving.
  • Although cloud data could be anywhere, you often have a choice about which country it lives in. Be aware that it will be subject to that country’s laws, this can cause privacy issues. For example, New Zealand has data privacy laws which might conflict with another country’s security agency rules about accessing databases.

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.  

Note: N4L provides a managed connection to 99% of New Zealand state and state integrated schools via N4L’s Managed Network. If your school decides to move to the cloud, or a cloud based email platform, please feel free to give us a call on 0800 LEARNING to discuss your network configuration to assist with a seamless and secure transition. The MoE has no specific requirements as to which country school data should be held in, although schools should note that the data held can be subject to that country’s law.