Feb 08 2021

IaaS Offers Critical Agility, Scale and Innovation for School Districts

Infrastructure as a Service provides the backbone needed for K–12 institutions to respond and innovate in the new normal.

Last spring’s rapid shift to remote learning may have taken many education IT teams by surprise, but the technology supporting this shift has been gaining steam for years. As we look back at the many technical miracles pulled off by teachers and school technologists, it’s clear that many of them were only possible through the agility, flexibility and scalability benefits brought by cloud computing. Without access to cloud resources, it would have been virtually impossible to take advantage of the videoconferencing, learning management and file-sharing services teams spun up to support teachers and students.

Throughout the pandemic, many of cloud computing’s more obvious applications have come through Software as a Service applications, where the cloud service provider offers customers a fully managed service delivered over the web. Moving complex services to SaaS models relieves IT teams of a lot of heavy lifting, allowing them to focus on integrating SaaS products in ways that best meet their schools’ needs.

It’s not always possible, however, to adopt a SaaS approach. Customized software deployments sometimes require school technologists to provide an underlying infrastructure of servers, storage, networking and other hardware to run critical applications. In other cases, SaaS solutions may be available but outside the budgets of cash-strapped districts. In those cases, schools can still take advantage of the cloud by turning to the unsung hero of the cloud in K–12: Infrastructure as a Service.

IaaS: Right Solution, Right Time

Infrastructure as a Service computing models provide the basic building blocks of IT to customers in the cloud. While IaaS offerings vary widely, they include services that meet the core needs for computing capacity, storage and networking. In layman’s terms, IaaS offers cloud-based versions of the services schools traditionally built in their on-premises data centers, without the constraints involved in building those services onsite.

Four companies dominate the IaaS market: Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud and VMware vCloud Air. Each provides customers with the ability to rapidly provision the services they need and pay for them either on demand or with significant discounts for long-term, high-volume use. This pricing model is one of the core value propositions offered by the cloud: You pay for what you use only for as long as you use it. In an on-premises environment, technology leaders must plan IT purchases far in advance and ensure that they have the hardware in place to meet future needs.

The rapid shift to remote learning that schools experienced over the past year simply didn’t allow for either. Capital project budgets didn’t suddenly increase, and no one had advance warning of the shift. IaaS services stepped in to meet this sudden unplanned surge and provided technologists with the computing resources they needed to quickly stand up new services, such as new video content platforms to support asynchronous learning or administrative systems that managed school lunch distribution programs. These needs could not have been predicated prior to the pandemic, but the flexibility and agility of IaaS made it possible for technologists to quicky spin up new infrastructure as needs arose.

READ MORE: With e-learning, proactive network investments pay off.

The Benefits of Cloud Economics

The economic benefits of the cloud are made possible through the massive economies of scale achieved by cloud providers. By operating data centers that are thousands of times more powerful than any individual customer would require, cloud providers are able to meet economic targets that are simply impossible for individual schools. This results in lower prices for services, but also requires that school technology leaders clearly understand the new economic models of IaaS computing.

First and foremost, IaaS shifts technology costs from a capital expenditure model, which requires occasional significant investments, to an operational expenditure model, where charges accumulate based upon use. In this model, the decisions made by technologists on a day-to-day basis have direct impacts on the bill that arrives at the end of that month. Schools must develop new processes to monitor and manage those costs.

One option for tracking cloud costs is CDW’s IT Cost Optimization Healthcheck service, which provides the expert advice that schools need to quicky identify services that are not properly provisioned and contain costs in a cloud environment.

Develop a Clear Cloud Strategy

While the initial rush to remote learning may have forced schools to make quick decisions, now is the time to step back and integrate those decisions into a coherent technology strategy. Districts have already seen the agility the cloud provides to their operations; now they have the opportunity to use the cloud to support the new normal of widely distributed operations.

Technologists and administrators should recognize that IaaS isn’t just a stopgap measure that came in handy during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic but a valuable tool that can help deliver technology to students and faculty quickly and inexpensively. Now that users have experienced the rapid deployment of technology in response to the pandemic, they will continue to expect that level of service from their IT teams.

The breadth of possible applications is limited only by the creativity and imagination of educators and technologists. Virtual lab platforms may allow students to not only interact with science experiments remotely but to do so in collaboration with world-renowned scientists. Administrative technology enhancements can reduce the amount of time teachers spend on bureaucracy, freeing them up for more student contact.

IaaS computing is a crucial enabler for the remote learning services that support today’s schools, as well as for the future technologies that will facilitate classroom learning for years to come. Schools that actively work to integrate IaaS into their technology portfolios will find themselves well prepared to meet the computing needs of students and faculty into the future.

MORE ON EDTECH: How to create an infrastructure for a remote-ready school.

Illustration by Boris Séméniako/Ikon Images