Cloud Computing (SaaS, PaaS, IaaS) does not have to be Alphabet Soup

Written by Debbie Karcher

Cloud computing can be difficult with the many types of cloud offerings available. One can drown in the wave of acronyms especially if the vendors or presenters offers solutions to all of them in one briefing. It takes time, understanding, training, and a strategy to move a data center from an on premises environment to the cloud. This article discusses the types of cloud services, a review of risks and benefits, and a near-term and long-term strategy. The three different types of cloud services that districts can use in lieu of having them reside in their own data center are:

Software as a Service (SaaS)
SaaS basically means any internet-based software or service that you rent, usually on a per-user, per-month basis. Examples include Office 365 for teachers and students, cloud-based ERP, and digital content. Most districts have some cloud-based technology already in place.

Platform as a Service (PaaS)
PaaS is the next level of the cloud. The vendors of PaaS services provide a certain framework and a basic set of functions that customers can customize and use to develop their own applications (Google App Engine).

Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS)
IaaS is the foundation or bottom layer of cloud computing. It includes services like storage, backup, and security. Example, Disaster Recovery Mobile Application (AWS or Rackspace).

This article will focus on SaaS because districts probably are using the cloud for some of its applications. Like any technology all decisions need a cost/benefit analysis, total cost of ownership calculation, and a complete understanding of the technology, especially if the technology is new to the district. Below are some of the benefits and risks associated with cloud computing.

  • System accessibility (anytime and anywhere)
  • No additional server hardware requirements (hardware is included with the application)
  • Minimal IT personnel needed to support the new application
  • Tier 1, 2 and 3 system support may be provided
  • System redundancy in the event of a natural disaster
  • Data is hosted at a third-party data center (loss of data control)
  • System support; your users could be dependent on a third party for level 1, 2 and 3 support
  • Potential data loss due to bankruptcy
  • Data security and data privacy vulnerability
  • Potential interruption of service due to vendor outages
  • Potential cost increase over time for maintenance and support

Districts may already be using cloud-based technology and the decision is probably based on the vendors’ model. This is not a strategic approach, but one based on immediate need and budget because of districts’ budgets and personnel constraints. In the near-term one of the first things a district can do is take an inventory all existing systems and determine if systems are already using cloud technology or cloud-based alternatives for existing systems. This should include all systems; not just those residing and supported by IT. The inventory should be quick and include the following:

Because districts may have systems residing in a cloud environment they could already be subject to the risks mentioned above. All new and existing contracts should be examined to have the following language included.

  • Insures data is stored where districts can obtain access
  • States the district’s data cannot be sent overseas or shared
  • Insures that district can get an executable copy of the system in case of bankruptcy
  • Include penalties for system non-performance and not meeting service level agreements
  • Require annual security audits of the system
  • Insure cloud provider has cyber liability insurance

Once this information is captured the districts can begin to include a long-term cloud strategy into their IT or district’s strategic plan. A migration from the data center to the cloud will take years and systems should be evaluated on an individual basis as they come up for renewal, replacement or become untenable to support. At the same time, districts need to develop processes, procedures, measurements, and audits to manage the many environments and vendor partners supporting these systems.