Clouds and silver linings

Concerns about business continuity are top of mind for many business owners in Christchurch at the moment. With the CBD locked down, and the prospect of gaining entry to access essential files and servers unlikely to happen for possibly weeks yet, the concept of a workplace as being a place bound by four walls and containing all the essential services is being reviewed.

In recent years I have been a strong advocate of schools looking to cloud computing as a solution for many of the issues they face in terms of data storage, backup, version control, support etc. etc.

Putting our words into action, we (at CORE) undertook the process of shifting all of our servers off-site nearly two years ago now, and have since then moved to shifting most of what we do into ‘the cloud’.

The most recent move has been to adopt a cloud-based accounting package, using Xero, which has not only provided much better levels of service and support, but has also reduced our costs considerably – from several thousand dollars a year, to an ongoing fee of $25/month plus an annual support fee.

At a time where many other businesses, and schools for that matter, were investing heavily in site-based servers, backup and infrastructure, we felt assured that the cloud platform was the way to go. Security of data, and concerns about privacy and access are the main reasons given for not choosing the cloud, and while there is certainly reason to consider these issues, we believed the pros outweighed the cons.

How that decision has paid off for us in the wake of the current earthquake crisis. While many others are waiting to get back into offices and buildings to retrieve servers and valuable back-up disks etc., our IT manager had us fully functioning from remote locations in less than 24 hours after the event.

For schools (and tertiary institutions) the importance of hosting servers and mission critical services remotely will take on a new meaning I’m sure. Several schools I am aware of, as well as one of the local tertiary providers, are concerned that their LMS system, for example, is no longer accessible because it is hosted on a server within the premises which is now cut off because of the quake. As a result, the option of students being able to continue accessing their learning via the LMS isn’t an option – while a remotely hosted application would have been able to continue to be accessed.

Perhaps the Horizon Report prediction of 2009 will prove to be correct, that cloud computing and private clouds may fit within the 2-3 years to adoption time-frame after all?

17 Responses to Clouds and silver linings

  1. Paul Seiler says:

    Derek, a poignant reminder. Over a year ago the Ministry aligned our learning platform / online system funding to support schools to implement hosted solutions only. While we still receive a fair amount of criticism (usually due to connectivity issues) I believe it was the right call. And resilience is only one of the benefits.

    Our main vendors have subsidiesed implementations available for all three supported platforms, so please encourage schools to call:
    – Edtech for Ultranet
    – Dataview for KnowledgeNET and/or Moodle

    Call my team on 04 463 7666 for any assistance.

    Background information on this initiative at http://tiny.cc/ivij7

    Paul Seiler

  2. Dear Derek – your blog is an inspiration in this difficult and tragic time. My thoughts are with you all in Christchurch.

    Over the weekend I was thinking about what educators could do – especially those who are far away and who might have expertise in e-learning – and I posted some preliminary thoughts on my blog. I think some ideas expressed here by you and in the comments may resonate – that schools who can’t access their LMS could still ‘keep the learning going’ in a patchwork way through the common Moodle instance suggested, and a Ministry of Ed coordination for this, and calling on other schools (ref Andrew Cowie from NEAL where schools could stream classes from Auckland to CHCH). These are just some rough ideas but the principle is that learning could continue through a ‘broker’ Moodle site that linked students with teachers and other willing facilitators at their appropriate level of study.

    I realise that the focus is still on rescue/ recovery and clean-up but perhaps something like this ‘cloud’ idea could help in the longer term – I’m not sure how many schools will be closed long-term and what kind of connectivity there may be in affected areas, but I am available to do whatever I can to assist.

    best wishes
    Stanley

  3. Stanley – this is exactly the sort of thinking we need. As it happens, there’s a group of us already putting some plans in place here in CHCH, and drawing on our networks around the country. I’d be keen to chat further with you about your ideas.

  4. widged says:

    You don’t necessarily want to go for 100% hosted. But you certainly want to have a regular backup of all critical data on a remote server or hosted environment, outside of your premises and preferably outside of your city. Hosting costs less than NZ$150 a year for unlimited domains, unlimited bandwidth and unlimited storage. Even if you use it for nothing but redundant storage of data, via ftp transfer, that’s well worth the investment.

    Related articles

    The Resilient Organization: A Guide for Disaster Planning and Recovery
    http://www.techsoup.org/toolkits/disasterplan/links/techsoup-disaster-recovery-guide.pdf

    Small Business – One Example of a (Hopefully!) Sound Backup Strategy
    http://counsellingresource.com/practice/security/backup-case-study.html

    Setting up a backup strategy with Amazon S3
    http://shapeshed.com/journal/setting_up_a_backup_strategy_with_amazon_s3/

  5. widged says:

    @Stanley Some people have proposed help with access to online course content at http://schoolseqnz.wikispaces.com/I+Can+Help

  6. widged says:

    Announced in the NZ IT community:

    Cloud hosting company Rackspace is offering free, fully managed cloud servers (Linux or Windows) to any IT businesses that are in need in Christchurch.
    http://www.techday.co.nz/start-up/news/free-managed-cloud-servers-for-chch-businesse/19471/8/

  7. Peter Hills says:

    Couldnt agree more. We have also been fully “in the clouds like CORE for 2 years – if its available via a web browser then we will think about using it – (if it’s not then find something that is). We have no servers, no data, virtually no technician, no hardware …. etc = we leave it to the experts. To get “learning stuff” up and going with staff and students – have a look at google education apps – particularly gsites as a teacher tool for learning and interacting with home – it’s free

  8. @Derek – sure please get in touch (email) when you can and plug me into your networks – I will plug away at this up in Auckland and discuss with my contacts in the tertiary sector. cheers Stanley

  9. Charles Newton says:

    Thanks Derek. This experience certainly furthers the case for a national education network! It’s now just a matter of how this is to be achieved. I suspect largely “ecologically”?

  10. John Driver says:

    Hi Derek, a good article with a valid point, but connectivity performance is still a big issue here in New Zealand for many schools, particularly those in rural or outlying areas. As a network manager in a high school in Dunedin, I would happily shift more and more of our services offsite, with a view to disaster-proofing, but until we have affordable high speed, high bandwidth connections, the realty is that the hosted services often don’t perform as well as those hosted locally. We use Google Apps extensively, and it is wonderful, but when we have 400 students trying to access it over a 2Mb SchoolZone connection, it is virtually useless. And e-Asttle, well, don’t even get me started on that. I agree entirely that cloud based services are obviously the way things are shifting (and quite rightly so), but I think that the enthusiasm should be backed up by thorough performance testing and discussions with everyone involved. Cloud computing is fabulous right up until the time your internet connection stops working…..

  11. thanks for providing the ‘other side of the picture’ here John – very important to have this perspective. I guess the responses to my post illustrate two key points for me:

    (a) that we need to be pressing on with providing robust, reliable high speed connectivity across all schools in New Zealand so that the ‘converts’ such as yourself can actually move forward in the way you want to. The important thing as you point out is that it’s not only about speed, but about capacity once you have several hundred users trying to gain access simultaneously.

    (b) we need to convince schools that have fibre running past the gate (and in a number of cases right into the server room) of the benefits of moving services into the cloud.

    I had a call today from a person who’d been trying to help a principal who is hamstrung at the moment because his school’s mail server is stuck inside his school which has no electricity – and he is desperately wanting to access his emails to read the updates from the MoE and principal’s group etc in relation to the earthquake situation. Kinda highlights the issue for me.

  12. Sonja says:

    Marco Arment was also sounding some caution about the cloud hosting in his presentation at Webstock. He didn’t elaborate that much but it was along the lines of cloud provision looks great until you try to move your hosted material to a different provider.

    While the cloud is useful – an externally hosted server with a disaster recovery back up in another location would also allow access in this kind of context. The disaster recovery back up is pretty essential – I have heard that when power went out to the Queensland education system in Brisbane during the floods there was no working back up system which made life difficult for a couple of days.

  13. […] (hosted LMS), they will be able to con­tinue to use those prod­ucts in their new loca­tion. Cloud com­put­ing is look­ing increas­ingly attrac­tive to those schools with email servers buried under a steel […]

  14. […] and business would be conducted in the future (see for example, the report from Douglas Harre, Derek Wenmoth’s post, and one by Lisa Galarneau). However, I wonder if, as the quakes continue, the conditions […]

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