One of the biggest buzzwords in ICT is cloud computing. At its simplest, cloud computing is about transferring resources, such as email, storage, applications and backup services, from hardware to the online world. And many people feel this approach has much to offer schools.
Cloud computing is widely used in homes through web-based email services such as Hotmail and Gmail, social networking sites such as Facebook and online retailers such as Amazon.
Many schools already use some form of cloud computing, in the form of a virtual learning environment (VLE), but most will also have a school-based file server.
It is this server that is replaced by cloud computing. In some ways, this is the next step in the evolution of computing. At one time, all resources were based on a desktop computer; the arrival of school networks saw most resources moving from the desktop to the file server. Cloud computing takes over this role.
So what are the benefits for schools? Supporters claim there are many: "Cost is an obvious one," says Ray Fleming, Microsoft UK's education marketing manager. "Some things are cheaper when moved to the cloud, not least because some cloud services are free."
Email is one example. Microsoft's Live@edu is a free, hosted service that gives every pupil a 10GB capacity mailbox, an additional 25GB of online storage, plus access to Office Web, a suite of tools that includes slimmed-down versions of programs such as Word and Excel.
"The cost of providing email per pupil per year is about pound;10," adds Mr Fleming. "The cost isn't just about the software and servers, but the support that goes with it."
Cloud computing is also more environmentally friendly and can save schools money on their energy bills, notes Barry Weeks, technical authority at ICT supplier RM. Shifting to web-based services means schools can remove some of their power-hungry file servers.
"Because customers are sharing resources, it means less equipment is being used, which means less power, less space and less hardware," he says.
In Lincolnshire, seven secondary schools have formed a consortium to work together on joint projects and pool resources in just this way. Initially, the Lincoln Specialist Schools Group had a VLE, including video conferencing, but each school had its own ICT set-up, which made extensive collaboration difficult.
The solution was to use Microsoft's Business Productivity Online suite, which enables pupils from different schools to work together but avoids the need for additional investment in either hardware or software.
There are other potential benefits, too. One is flexible charging - paying for what you use when you use it rather than having an ongoing cost regardless of whether equipment is standing idle.
Cloud computing also means you can expand your ICT resources more easily - there is no need to order new hardware.
In addition, it offers protection against hardware failure. If a school is flooded, for example, there is no danger that resources will be lost. "You could relocate pupils to temporary accommodation and give them access to their server and data by transporting resources from the cloud," Mr Weeks explains.
Remote back-up services offer reassurance, and many cloud computing resources have a high level of security - including 24-hour monitoring - to ward off both glitches and hacking. "Not many educational establishments can afford such resources," says Mr Weeks.
Cloud computing also means the school's resources can be accessed from any computer, adds Mr Fleming. "There is the flexibility of having resources available any time and anywhere," he says.
"If a resource is held in the cloud, a pupil can continue an assignment at home, using the same resources, even if they don't have them installed on their home computer."
As with all ICT solutions, there are some drawbacks to cloud computing. One is that instead of tailoring a system to your own needs, you are using one that has been designed to meet a wide range of uses: it is more off- the-peg than made-to-measure.
"If you've developed your own email service, it's exactly tailored to meet your school's requirements," says Mr Fleming. "With a cloud-based service, you lose that element of control and customisation, so there is some compromise."
The cloud is not the answer to everything, warns Mr Weeks. He notes that some things are not suited for cloud-based services. One is data-intensive applications, such as high-definition video streaming, and services where there may be legal restrictions over where the data resides. A potentially critical drawback is where a school has limited network connectivity.
But losing a broadband connection does not have to be a disaster, says Mr Fleming. "It's not a question of all or nothing when it comes to the cloud. You can put some resources online and keep others locally."
Schools could also keep their critical servers locally but have a back-up server in the cloud. "In the event of hardware failure, the cloud-hosted server can take over," says Mr Weeks. "At the same time, no capital investment is required for a second server that may never be used."
IS CLOUD COMPUTING FOR YOU?
- Think about which services or resources could work better if they were cloud based.
- Using cloud-based services is not a question of eitheror. You will still want to host some applications and services locally.
- Go for a roll-out approach, perhaps initially using the cloud for email and adding more services at a later date.
- If you are using a paid-for service, find out exactly what you get for your money and how flexible the payment system is.
- Check what you get in terms of features and functionality. Is it flexible?
- Make sure you have a contingency plan for broadband failure.
- Check whether you need to upgrade your broadband service to take advantage of the cloud.