Mar 04 2011

Shifting Skill Sets

Cloud computing deployments require a different sort of IT expertise in schools.

April 2011 E-newsletter

Classrooms in the Cloud

Shifting Skill Sets

Seeding Your Cloud

Microsoft Office 365

Cloud computing changes everything. It makes district IT departments more nimble and offers greater computing resources at less cost, while giving large organizations the ability to turn on a dime as their technology needs change. The cloud model also alters the kinds of skills and personnel needed to drive IT departments forward.

The skills districts will need may vary depending on whether they're building a private cloud or subscribing to services from a commercial provider, says Mark White, chief technology officer of Deloitte Consulting's technology practice.

"For instance, an organization focused on building a private cloud must transform its IT group into a cloud service provider. They'll need the same kinds of expertise they developed in growing their data center – skills in consolidation, optimization and virtualization," says White. "But they'll also need the talent to do fairly sophisticated operations and application automation, as well as server provisioning and de-provisioning, and service management."

School districts that plan to rely more on public cloud providers, especially for basic infrastructure needs, will probably need fewer operations people to maintain, patch and upgrade systems, White contends. But they will still require people with expertise in creating a catalog of cloud services, managing subscribers, brokering agreements with cloud providers and intervening when problems arise.

Getting Schooled on the Cloud 

Like many schools, The Unquowa School in Fairfield, Conn., adopted commercial cloud services two years ago because of the low cost, ubiquitous access to computing power and ease of management.

Each day, students, teachers and staff can simply sign on to their web apps and get to work, says Lloyd Mitchell, technology coordinator for Unquowa, which has an enrollment of about 180 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade. Instead of having to set up and maintain servers for data, e-mail and applications – or outsource these tasks at a substantial cost to the school – Mitchell can concentrate on teaching students the skills necessary for navigating inside the cloud.

"The first thing they need to learn is how to be digitally organized," says Mitchell, who also teaches math and social studies. "You have to understand the concept of folder structure to be able to find your work and stay organized. That's the first skill I teach. I've yet to encounter a student who hasn't found that valuable."

Mitchell says administrators also need to do their homework and become familiar with the apps, so they can help guide students through them.

"It's really just about learning how to manage the environment," he says. "Typically, when you're managing the infrastructure, you'll have multiple systems doing one job. With the cloud you have one interface managing all your apps.”

Mitchell says using cloud-based apps has gone so well that he is working with an outside developer to design a web-based student information system.

Rapid Deployment

Rapid City Area Schools in South Dakota moved to the cloud "by accident" five years ago, when it outsourced administration of the IBM RS/6000s that were housing its student information system, says IT Director Rick Bates. Since then, RCAS has moved its Microsoft Exchange server to a hosting provider, begun virtualizing its servers in a private cloud and rolling out virtualized desktops via HP thin clients. Among other things, this enabled the district to move from three network administrators to a single administrator who is able to monitor and maintain the network from one console.

"Our team has changed in the last seven years, most dramatically in size," Bates says. "The other is skill set. We're much less focused on hardware today and more on understanding the virtual infrastructure and managing it through software tools."

Growth in job listings posted in 2010 requiring cloud computing skills


The cloud has also driven a deeper understanding of infrastructure throughout his team, Bates adds.

"Typically, technicians know one thing: the device they're working on,” he says. “These guys now have to understand the fact that there's a thin client running a virtual machine. So if they plug in a USB device and it doesn't work, is it a thin client issue or something on the virtual machine? It's a level of knowledge they've never really had before. The skill change has been dramatic."

Schools will need a finely tuned network with plenty of bandwidth to get the most out of the cloud, Bates says. They'll also need to bring their service management and negotiation skills up a notch, especially when dealing with public cloud providers. 

"You have to engage with the vendor and make sure you get experienced professional services to help you out," he says. "You need to make sure you have a good partner who can help you stand up your cloud environment and be there when you need some help getting things going."

Cloud Talk

Got your eyes on the cloud? There's more than one kind, and each may be used for different purposes – for example, to provide raw computing power, host custom apps, serve up ready-made applications, or provide data backup and storage. Here are the four basic types.

  • Public cloud: A commercial service that allows any user to access computing resources and subscribe to applications that are paid for with a credit card.
  • Private cloud: As with a commercial cloud, users can self-provision hardware or services, but the infrastructure is managed within the organization or contracted to a trusted third party, typically to maintain tighter control over sensitive information.
  • Community cloud: A cloud designed to support a community of organizations with similar needs, usually managed by the organizations themselves or by a third party, which is more cost effective than a private cloud.
  • Hybrid cloud: A combination of private, community or public clouds that employ the same technologies and enable data and application portability among them, enabling them to scale as needed.