The three most important rules in real estate are location, location, location.
IT leaders should be forgiven if their thinking is likewise preoccupied by location. After all, many of them now oversee both physical and virtual space because their districts have outsourced the management and hosting of mission-critical applications — email, student information and learning management systems, Voice over IP, network management, and financial and human resources databases — to companies located in the cloud.
Is moving to the cloud simply the trendy thing to do, or are there compelling reasons underlying such decisions? Here are five principles to help guide your thinking.
1. Best Practices Transcend Locale
Some IT directors are wary of outsourcing because they fear they'll be sacrificing control over important responsibilities and that the quality of services may deteriorate. Understandably, they're reluctant to hand over the keys to a system they have fine-tuned over the years to someone they don't know — someone who may not even be in the vicinity.
But such thinking fails to account for the effort it takes to stay on top of the ever-evolving IT landscape. As systems become more complex; the rate of software and hardware development accelerates; the number of consumer-level devices on campuses skyrockets; and the introduction of more sophisticated malware and network intrusions becomes commonplace, it becomes increasingly apparent that the average school IT department can't respond with the same level of competence and expertise as companies that specialize in these service offerings.
When IT directors outsource services, they aren't surrendering responsibility for the quality of those services; they're simply shifting the delivery mechanism.
2. A New Era Requires New Skills
If IT departments are still responsible for quality services but aren't directly providing those services, what are they doing instead?
For one, they're becoming more adept at negotiating service-level agreements with partners and monitoring performance against those standards. If an SLA states that the uptime for a given service is guaranteed to be 99.9 percent, for example, the IT department needs to have a means of determining that the partner is fulfilling that obligation. Team members should verify this performance using their own monitoring tools or those of a trusted third party rather than simply accepting as self-evident any reports they receive from the service provider.
In addition to SLAs, IT staff must negotiate factors such as cost and contract length. Don't immediately assume that moving to the cloud will save money, and don't make price the primary factor in identifying an appropriate partner.
3. Think in Three- to Five-Year Increments
The decision to adopt a major new system or undergo a significant process change should never be made lightly.
If you find yourself longing for the old system three to six months into a change, don't panic. It takes time for users to learn new systems and for the bugs and idiosyncrasies to be worked through.
If such discomfort lingers for a year or more, it's possible that the vendor evaluation process wasn't as complete as it should have been. Cutting your losses and changing to a different system will not only cost money, it will also cost you credibility within your organization.
Ultimately, no IT leader can afford to be a short-term thinker when it comes to email, databases, student information and learning management systems, and other core applications. Be prepared to invest at least three to five years in a system before making a change. Teachers, especially, tend to become frustrated when they perceive that changes have been made simply for the sake of change.
4. Size Matters
When determining a cloud strategy, it's important to consider the size of the Internet connection, the size of the partner, and the size and type of data involved.
The size of the pipe to a district's Internet service provider needs to accommodate not only the current average service demands of its users, but also all the new devices and services that are competing for that bandwidth. When transitioning a locally hosted service to a cloud-based one, IT departments need to assure users that their experience will be as good — if not better — than it has been. Some ISPs even offer burstable connectivity that allows users to exceed their normal bandwidth requirements for brief periods without significantly affecting their bill.
When evaluating potential partners, consider their track record and their commitment to the education market. Startup companies appear weekly and can disappear just as fast. Remember: A company with no track record can't prove that it can deliver what it promises. Select carefully, recognizing that what your users want and what may appeal to your "inner geek" may not be the same.
It's also important to consider file size, frequency of access and performance. In a K–12 environment, large files typically are associated with multimedia projects. Raw video and audio files are large to begin with, and during the editing process, they are accessed frequently. To give users working with these files the best possible experience, host the files on local file servers; Internet speeds can't affordably approach Ethernet local area network speeds.
5. Focus on Education, Not Technology
At the end of the day, teachers and students don't care if what they use is hosted at school or in the cloud. They just want it to work.
Savvy IT directors understand that it's their job to support teachers and students to the best of their ability. In many cases, that means transitioning from a service provider to a service mediator. It's the IT director's job to determine where best practices can be found — and to banish the "not invented here" thinking that can cripple innovation.