On the Changing Nature of School IT Systems

One of the most significant changes faced by information technology professionals in schools (and other organizations) has been the adoption of cloud-based data and productivity systems. Whereas previous generations of IT professionals configured servers that were physically located on campus to provide necessary services (for example file storage and print management) and they installed applications on hard drives of individual computers, current generations often configure virtual servers and manage user accounts on cloud-based systems.

Schools make significant use of software as a service (SaaS) tools for productivity tools, educational purposes, and business services. Google Workspaces is the dominant example, but  tools such as the student information system and the library catalog are also provided as SaaS.. The common descriptor for this type of system in “cloud-based” as users connect to a virtual space on the Internet, but the specific location is uncertain. There other instances in which schools will contract with vendors such as Amazon Web Services (AWS) provide highly configurable systems that can be used to replicate many of the same functions that used to be configured on physical servers; these are commonly called platforms as a service (PaaS), and they can also accurately be labeled “cloud-based” as the virtual location is clear, but the physical location is not. The benefits of both SaaS and PaaS service systems are:

  • Security—Cloud providers employ legions of security professionals to protect their data centers. While most SaaS platforms configure their systems in a manner that minimizes the potential for insecure configurations, PaaS services ensure security of the data centers, but the subscriber is responsible for the security of the software and programs they install.
  • Scalability—System administrators can log on to their administrative dashboard of their cloud-based platform and request additional capacity which is usually available in minutes. That additional capacity does increase the fees, of course.
  • Redundancy—The data and systems stored on cloud-based systems can be easily duplicated. Depending on the exact configuration, systems can be copied with a few mouse clicks; this allows both duplicate services and automated backups. As a result, essential systems can be restored immediately if service is interrupted.
  • Minimize capital expenses—Data centers are very expensive to build, maintain, and secure. The expense can be larger than anticipated because it is always necessary to build extra capacity into the system, plus it is necessary to provide air conditioning and other supports to ensure the servers operate as expected. When using cloud-based systems, IT professionals can “spin up” servers without the need to purchase, configure, and protect hardware.

While SaaS and PaaS systems remove hardware from school data centers, the system administrators employed by schools do continue to manage users and applications. Among the most important responsibilities is user management—typically the users are grouped into organizational units which has been the standard practice for generations of system administrators—and the schools want to ensure only their current students, faculty, and staff can access the systems. They also identify which tools and features are available to the different organizational units.

Cloud-based systems are all built on very sophisticated databases. School IT professionals are often involved with managing the interoperability of different systems. For example, they may manage a learning management system that is connected to the student information system so that grades reported in the LMS are automatically sent to the SIS. This does require the involvement of programmers from the vendors, but once the connections are established, local system administrators manage them. From the user’s perspective, using a cloud-based system is not unlike using files and applications installed on the local hard drive or the local area network, except for the fact that cloud-based computing starts with the web browser.