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Is Cloud Computing a Credible Solution for Education?

Can cloud computing live up to its hype, or is it just another empty promise designed to create demand and liberate more funds from already strapped IT budgets?

"Hype aside, cloud computing is nothing new," according to Bruce Schneier, an internationally renowned security technologist and author of numerous books on the subject. "It's the modern version of the timesharing model from the 1960s, which was eventually killed by the rise of the personal computer. It's what Hotmail and Gmail have been doing all these years, and it's social networking sites, remote backup companies, and remote e-mail filtering companies such as MessageLabs. Any IT outsourcing--network infrastructure, security monitoring, remote hosting--is a form of cloud computing."

Schneier spoke at a special session during this year's EduComm conference held back in June. Panelists also included Jeff Keltner, who heads the global initiative for Google Apps for Education, as well as senior executives from AT&T, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and Cisco. They discussed the future of information technology in the "age of the cloud."

The Benefits for Education
Cloud computing, in a nutshell, is a way to provide computer applications to users without the need for those users to purchase, install, or support software on their local computers and/or servers. Cloud computing provides Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS), Platform-as-a-Service (PaaS), and Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), meaning not only is the software hosted on a remote computer, but data are stored remotely too.

The benefits of cloud computing are largely financial, according to panelists: The organization pays according to how much and how often they need services. Software and storage are hosted and supported on the servers of the cloud computing provider, so, educational institutions don't buy software only one person uses, invest in technologies that are quickly outdated, or spend hours and hours on technical support. Cloud computing also offers a wider range of software than would be practical to purchase individually.

There are practical benefits, too, panelists pointed out. With cloud computing, there is (theoretically) no limit to how much can be stored, whereas the local PC or Mac can fill up quickly. This makes cloud computing highly scalable. IT departments don't have to keep software or firmware up to date. Cloud computing also provides simple collaboration tools. And one of the greatest benefits: Data can be accessed using a Web browser, allowing people to access their files and applications from anywhere in the world, rather than only from their desk or laptop.

Outside the theoretical discussion at Educomm, how practical is cloud computing to education? It does appear to have supporters.

One example is University of California, Berkeley. In 2007, UC Berkeley began a pilot project class focused on developing and deploying SaaS. In 2008, the university moved the course from Berkeley-owned servers to the cloud. According to Berkeley, they wanted undergraduates to gain exposure to cloud computing tools because they believe they will be in demand. They also found the cloud made it easier to fulfill assignments, such as saturating large database servers. Normally that assignment would have taken 200 local servers. Instead, they were able to acquire 200 servers in a few minutes, and they could release them once the lab was over.

Another supporter is InfoWorld blogger William Hurley. In an open letter to President Obama, Hurley said, "I propose you create a government-funded computing cloud for use by all colleges and universities. Such a resource would level the academic playing field. Researchers toiling at thousands of smaller institutions would have access to computing power currently available only to a handful. We cannot predict from where the next great innovation will come, but public cloud computing would dramatically improve our collaboration and innovation as a nation."

Gartner Group blogger Thomas Bittman said this: "The Web, social software and cloud computing will definitely have an impact on enterprise IT--but the impact on our educational system will be astounding, and many in our educational system don't see it coming."

Is There a Downside?
But there has to be a downside, right? Security pro Schneier cautioned that cloud computing forces reliance on a third party, which may not always be the best idea.

"When a computer is within your network, you can protect it with other security systems such as firewalls and IDSs," explained Schneier. "You can build a resilient system that works even if those vendors you have to trust may not be as trustworthy as you like. With any outsourcing model, whether it be cloud computing or something else, you can't. You have to trust your outsourcer completely. You not only have to trust the outsourcer's security, but its reliability, its availability, and its business continuity."

With the public cloud services, you could potentially lose everything. He said you may or may not get a behemoth company such as Google or Amazon to restore your e-mail or Google docs, for example. Schneier also pointed out that you don't want critical data disappearing because the cloud provider went bankrupt, and, for some types of organizations, "you don't want the company you're using to be sold to your direct competitor. You don't want the company to cut corners, without warning, because times are tight. Or raise its prices and then refuse to let you have your data back."

Even Schneier admitted that cloud computing probably has a future.

"Be careful who you trust," said Schneier, "be careful what you trust them with, and be careful how much you trust them. Outsourcing is the future of computing. Eventually we'll get this right, but you don't want to be a casualty along the way."

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