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MIS Systems Thread, Cloud Computing and Management Information Systems- what do members think? in Technical; @ john You will be able to use SIF to transfer data between Progesso and Keith Johnson's Timetabler....
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    @john You will be able to use SIF to transfer data between Progesso and Keith Johnson's Timetabler.

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    Thanks for all the responses so far to this question about whether Cloud Computing will become the required format for school Information Management Systems.
    There seems to be an equal number of pros and cons to having a school's data managed offsite and delivered to a school through a browser. It certainly feels like there isn't yet a definitive answer to the question, so I look forward to seeing the discussion continue.

    Probably one of the reasons for the lack of a yes/no answer is that I didn't start by defining my criteria and then asking for advice on a best-fit solution. Perhaps I should have said I wanted a solution to managing my information that was effective, low-maintenance, economical, accessible to all users, extensible, interoperable, adaptable to changes in legislation, etc. But even then I suspect that the answer would depend on individual school circumstances. For example, if a school has a technical team with good skills then there is perhaps more choice than if it doesn't.

    One of the things that is haunting me about Cloud solutions is that it sounds very much like the days of mainframe computers and dumb terminals. Of course, most of us are too young to know much about these things, but I am told that there was a lack of user empowerment and an absolute dependence on the quality of traffic on the wire that delivered it to you. Of course, things don't need to be like that with modern systems but I would suggest that questions about these two aspects of the Cloud will keep needing to be asked.

    Historically, when processing power became cheap, PCs took over from mainframes. The case for Cloud has its example in things like search engines. By using Google we are using their network of thousands of computers to do a processing task that we couldn't do with our PC on its own. I suggest that we need to find similar arguments when we specify Cloud as the solution to other types of problem.

    One problem that I think we have here with our specification is that we assume that the current function of MIS will always remain the same. The very name 'Management' Information Systems does suggest the passive organisation of data for managers to look at. I would feel that, at a time when money is particularly tight, the question of Value for Money will come to the fore. i.e. Does the system do enough for what we are paying out? In the case of MIS that needs to include both the cost of the system itself and the cost of the people who maintain and manage it.

    I personally don't think that 'managing information' is going to be demanding enough for schools in the future. The whole point of collecting data must lie in what a school does with it and the impact that is having on the effectiveness of the school. For example, we might wish to judge a registration system on whether it reduces truancy and helps allocate additional learning to those who missed out through illness. In the area that interests me - performance data - collecting pupils' scores and colouring them red or green may be where many schools are, but it isn't going to impress a visiting inspector unless a school can show what the school did with this information and whether their processes are improving standards.

    A while ago we put together a checklist of sorts to try to suggest to schools how far they needed to go in moving from a 'functional' use of data, to a 'systemic' use - with a high impact on the work of a school. This checklist can be seen at this link. What is useful about something like this (and I don't claim it is the complete picture) is that it can help us be more specific about our requirements in order to answer the question about whether Cloud is a good approach in any particular case.

    If I take an example, if a school wants all teachers to engage in the school's performance data and undertake research using it, then a distributed approach will become an important criteria. A school might then puzzle why it has a 'Data Manager' to manage the school's data when it doesn't delegate one person to do the breathing for everyone else. This may suggest a Cloud approach if teachers wish to make a lot of use of the MIS away from the school - or maybe a good networked solution coupled with VPN would have more advantages.

    Will Cloud computing put limits on what you can do? Does browser technology have limitations over a standard PC application which become amplified when you are processing a lot of data? Which data technically needs to be processed locally and which remotely? What data will we need to cache? If we are working with data across several applications does Cloud become a barrier or not?

    I could go on, but this reply would get even longer than it is.
    So, for me the answer to Cloud lies in whether it meets the criteria I suggested earlier, avoids the twin problems of disempowerment or dependency on delivery speed, is not restricted in what it can do through using browser technology, and that the MIS solution chosen has an impact on the work of the school that can be weighed up against its cost.
    Last edited by Mike_Bostock; 15th May 2011 at 09:44 AM.

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    I think you have to differentiate between cloud based MIS and hosted solutions. Cloud MIS may run into Data Protection issues as the data could be spread around and stored outside the UK/Europe and be subject to different legislation. However, if you go down the hosted route, your data may be in the UK and governed by the UK Data Protection Act.

    Bandwidth may be a problem if you try to run a client server MIS or one that was designed with client server architecture over the internet. But if you use something that's optimised for the web, then there's no problem.

    Elsiegee40 - you're not alone in not having an MIS. Many independent schools of varying sizes rely on a combination of the school secretary, spreadsheets and database programs. Perhaps question your visiting salesmen about the location of the data to have the reassurance that it complies with the DP Act and that you can answer any parental questions.

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    DOS applications under Windows = Windows Applications under Cloud

    In 1990s when Windows replaced DOS, some software vendors tweaked their DOS applications to sell their DOS application under Windows without true benefits of Windows GUI, multi-tasking, multi-threading and host of other underlying features etc..

    Now 20 years on, in 2010s Windows suppliers will be trying to repeat the history and sell their Windows based applications with terminal services under browser without the true benefit of the Cloud and at the expense of performance, higher server costs, flexibility, dynamism, larger carbon foot-print and underlying host of features etc...

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    CAM
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    A "true" cloud system where you host the services on mutiple remote data farms: probably not. Too risky relying on an Internet connection and some third party to look after things.

    A semi-cloud system run over an LEA Intranet: That would be better! One central MIS with automatic transfer of pupils from one school to another, centralised report system for parents with kids at multiple schools in the borough and support from the LEA IT team. And data isn't put into the hands of a strange third party. It is also not vulnerable to wider Internet faults (but beware of links to the LEA Intranet going down).

    Unfortunately the idea of an LEA based cloud MIS will likely be killed off by Academies.

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    It is quite interesting to hear about the interest in the cloud at times ... and schools saying LAs need to move to it. Considering that many RBCs have data centres which host services and resources over a range of hardware and locations, the cloud has been used in education for some time. It is mainly the 'bolt a bit on' style of use (for scaling, etc) that is newer.

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    Quote Originally Posted by CAM View Post
    A "true" cloud system where you host the services on mutiple remote data farms: probably not. Too risky relying on an Internet connection and some third party to look after things.

    A semi-cloud system run over an LEA Intranet: That would be better! One central MIS with automatic transfer of pupils from one school to another, centralised report system for parents with kids at multiple schools in the borough and support from the LEA IT team. And data isn't put into the hands of a strange third party. It is also not vulnerable to wider Internet faults (but beware of links to the LEA Intranet going down).

    Unfortunately the idea of an LEA based cloud MIS will likely be killed off by Academies.
    I wouldn't even trust our LEA with our Data - they are basically capita now!

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    the cloud has been used in education for some time.
    Recall a conversation with someone around the turn of the century joking that the seriously buzzing Application Service Provider (ASP) thing would put me out of a job any day now - it's just another marketing term for the stupid & gullible, albeit one with a bit more "oomph" now.

    The best ones are the schools that somehow think the "cloud" will currently wash away all their infrastructure and save them lots and lots of money.

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    Quote Originally Posted by PiqueABoo View Post
    Recall a conversation with someone around the turn of the century joking that the seriously buzzing Application Service Provider (ASP) thing would put me out of a job any day now - it's just another marketing term for the stupid & gullible, albeit one with a bit more "oomph" now.

    The best ones are the schools that somehow think the "cloud" will currently wash away all their infrastructure and save them lots and lots of money.
    Cloud computing has been around in the business world for a number of years in the form of programs like salesforce.com. Businesses require the same things as education does; security,value for money, ease of use, portability, instant access and so on. For individual businesses, these programs have made maintenance, upgrades etc of the program easier as it's taken care of by the supplier like Salesforce. Companies don't have to invest in their own technical expertise to make the program work.

    The difference between these cloud programs and some of the old, current, educational ones is the way that they have been developed. If you have an MIS, or any educational program, that's based on old technology, as BromcomPublicRelations outlined above, then you are still going to have problems and require IT people to solve them.

    If you use programs that especially written for the cloud or hosted approach then the requirement is reduced or eliminated. Some of our customers (and this is an example, not a sales pitch) don't have IT technicians, the program is just managed by the school secretary.

    In some small, cash strapped schools, the infrastructure doesn't exist. Cloud applications like Google Education and the like are helping fulfil the ICT teaching requirements, but without the infrastructure.

    That's not to say that IT expertise is not valuable in schools. What the best cloud and hosted services do is to free up IT specialists from getting bogged down in keeping the infrastructure working, giving them the time to do the much more skillful job of making sure the data is meaningful and contributing to the education of the students.

    But it's horses for courses. There are some good programs that have been built for the internet but not everyone in education feels comfortable going down that route at the moment.

    How about this for a barometer test: check how long until you next access anything on the internet whether it's a website, Google search, email, Facebook or whatever, using your computer at work, home or your smartphone. Think about how inconvenient it would be if you couldn't. I suspect the vast majority of us will conclude that we are already hooked on the internet and therefore cloud of one sort or another ...

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    The difference between these cloud programs and some of the old, current, educational ones is the way that they have been developed.
    I started s/w engineering as a day job 20+ years ago and the way I see it, it's all "old" tech e.g. we had thoroughly web-ified a seriously non-trivial MIS system well before the turn of the century, and were very keen to do hosting but the customers were still struggling to grok the net, wanted the servers and data on-premises (was a WAN-based system so comms link reliability was the same issue either way), so they had their "cloud" tech running locally.

    All that's really happened since is that browsers continued on their already well established journey towards platform independence nirvana with capabilities increasing to match locally installed platform-specific client-code. Oh and bandwidth costs went down and security attitudes softened quite significantly - threats haven't changed that much though, so we might yet see some raped cloud DB splattered on front pages causing a bit of a "rethink" amongst folk who likely never thought in the first place.

    giving them the time to do the much more skillful job of making sure the data is meaningful
    ::giggle::
    In the past I've had to know as much as three national (evil, kafka-esque, tagged) data format experts put together and those skills are a small fraction of the set - largely the ability to temporarily put up with concentrating on very tedious things that others much higher up on the OCD scale probably enjoy.

    and contributing to the education of the students.
    Which bit of their education are they equipped to help with? Consensus seems to be that school's aren't normally interested in any serious IT stuff, just the upgraded "typing" variety as the bloke with the USB-stick PC very aptly put it.

    What the best cloud and hosted services do is to free up IT specialists from getting bogged down in keeping the infrastructure working
    Who's bogged down in the areas you have in mind? All the DB apps in my world tend to tick over and have done for years and several versions e.g. SQL databases, Exchanges etc. Putting those in the cloud saves money for the h/w and a bit of time/expertise: a) installing, b) patching, c) health monitoring, but unless the tech concerned is stupid it's not that expensive and can be very easily be offset by new problems that cloud champions coveniently overlook.

    I see a broad spectrum and some of the most difficult, intractable issues I've had to deal with are genuinely with "cloud" apps and they just keep on coming: A zilllion browser issues; plenty of comms & proxy & filtering & firewall issues where the default is for all the different parties responsible for any given link in the chain is to blame the other ones ('holistic' folk who understand the chain, the protocols and the effects of what they might encounter on their journey seem a bit thin on the ground).

    --

    Pragmatic reality for me is the "old" versus "new" tech thing is misleading and there are no universal conclusions to be drawn: A well-made local system can trump a cloud system both in terms of support overheads and flexibility (cloud may well have more constraints); the converse can be just as true; cloud app bandwidth and QoS might be an issue; native apps can still knock spots off cloud equivalents in terms of usability and features; I can often promptly fix local issues, with the cloud you might have to wait, and wait and wait; cloud obviously triumphs by delivering anywhere-access by default if that requirement is business critical and you're content re. the data security implications etc.

    But one thing is true: Except in a strictly academic sense I couldn't care less about how a given cloud service is implemented server-side, whether it's traditional web app, TS app or [something else], it's all the various aspects of the client side experience that count and of course the ££££'s.
    Last edited by PiqueABoo; 21st May 2011 at 03:25 PM.

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    I thought I would add another contribution to this thread having attended the National College Conference exhibition this week. Whilst there I tried to remember to ask the Cloud question of headteachers who visited our stand. Looking back, it was probably only about 10 heads and another exhibitor who I asked about Cloud MIS, but reactions from this small sample were interesting, nevertheless.

    I can report that only one headteacher I spoke with had a specific view on this question, and that head made the point that their VLE was Cloud-based and it would be more convenient for connectivity if their MIS was as well. For others their prime consideration was that their MIS worked reliably and they weren't particularly bothered about where the application lived.

    My interest in this question lies in the fact that the system that we market draws data from different school MIS solutions. At the present time, over 90% (probably closer to 95%) of MIS in schools are installable, networked, SQL-database driven Microsoft applications. For our system to have a rich connection to the data fields in an MIS there is no question that it is far more efficient because our application is also an installable, networked, SQL-database driven Microsoft application.

    The main point made in my discussion with a supplier who markets a related Cloud-based product was access from home by teachers. Thinking this over, I am still of a view that if it was me, I would prefer a VPN solution that also gave me access to all my other files and applications on my work computer.

    So, for me anyway, I think I will wait a while longer until the percentage of MIS in schools that are Cloud-based grows a bit, before putting resources into developing a Cloud version of our application.

  12. Thanks to Mike_Bostock from:

    GrumbleDook (18th June 2011)

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    Quote Originally Posted by Mike_Bostock View Post
    Thinking this over, I am still of a view that if it was me, I would prefer a VPN solution that also gave me access to all my other files and applications on my work computer.
    Good points.

    On VPN:
    VPN can be a halfway house solution to offsite access without going completely cloud, but the major problem apart from added complexity is that it’s unlikely to be scalable or very responsive in most situations because the outbound bandwidth on low cost ADSL lines is very limited.

    That’s not normally a problem for web surfing etc where the inbound data from websites far exceeds the few characters of outbound data you type as the URL to access it – the very reason why ubiquitous broadband was designed to give asymmetric bandwidth, which as we know is what the A stands for in ADSL. If you start serving content up outbound from the school either using a local web server or a VPN connection to an MIS server located in the school, the capacity requirement is reversed so you are in effect swimming against the tide. That’s bound to place a limit on the number of simultaneous users and/or severe reductions in response times.

    You also have to think that usage of school systems like report writers, parent portals and MIS in general etc is very lumpy because everyone tends to do the same things at more or less the same time and statistical bandwidth levelling that you find in other non-school situations doesn’t work.

    Furthermore, VPN can often be a bit problematical on home broadband connections for other reasons such as traffic shaping limits imposed by ISPs. Depending on the ISP and package you have, the actual throughput of data on VPN ports may be slowed as they prioritise other things like web surfing to balance the load on their backhaul internet connection at busy times e.g. evenings and weekends (i.e. non school hours). Most of the big name ISPs don’t even tell you that they are doing this and those that are honest about it usually offer a ‘home worker’ or a similar package that does give a higher priority to things like VPN at a higher cost. People in this forum can probably figure out the best way through the stuff ISPs don’t make obvious, but the average staff member? Even if they do understand the argument, I doubt many would change their ISP because of it.

    There’s also the security aspect of using VPNs to consider – if that bridge is breeched, then intruders have access to a lot more of your data than just the MIS, so you need to be really careful about how you set it up.

    You will also find that many low cost broadband routers (virtually anything sub £500) will have a fairly small practical limit to the number of simultaneous VPN tunnels that they can create due to the limited power of the internal processor, especially if you use a decent security policy. There’s always DSL lines and Cisco of course, but not many schools want to spend that sort of money...

    On the other hand, cloud hosting is designed to be scalable and provide reliable connectivity and you don’t need anything more than a basic cheap as chips broadband connection at the user end wherever that is, at school or at home. That also makes the case for web based MIS systems vs. standard apps running on a remote cloud server, because ports 80 and 443 used by web servers will always get high priority from any broadband traffic shaping.

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    As it stands now, I think cloud computing is still relatively new and the broadband in this country is p155 poor. Give us faster broadband conx with redundancy and a few more years for cloud based computing to get a decent foot in the door and I may be interested. Until then, not going to happen here.

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    There’s always DSL lines and Cisco of course, but not many schools want to spend that sort of money...
    Schools, or at least the ones I encounter are apparently used to it - all have symmetric around here and increasing upstream flow for lots of different credible reasons is why. Many of those can't or won't be replaced by cloud-fluff any time soon, which is explicitly acknowledged in this comment of yours i.e. there is a "lot more" data at the school:

    There’s also the security aspect of using VPNs to consider – if that bridge is breeched, then intruders have access to a lot more of your data
    If I breach a cloud service I might get access to hundreds of thousands of folk's data. Only time will tell but with hindsight we may decide that some school with their random VPN occasionally being totalled would have been a better overall deal - think of it as a minor variation on the old but still perfectly good "Windows monoculture is bad" argument.

    I suspect we might see something of a cloud backlash, in fact there are creeping signs of one already as a direct consequence of the script kiddy self-promotion/journo-publicity over the last couple of years. People here and there are talking about getting their important stuff off the net, back behind the air-gaps.

    ports 80 and 443 used by web servers will always get high priority from any broadband traffic shaping.
    Will be interesting to see what, if anything, falls out of the current CoE push on net-neutrality in that respect e.g. "Users should have the greatest possible access to Internet-based content, applications and services of their choice...".
    Last edited by PiqueABoo; 25th June 2011 at 09:28 PM. Reason: tpyo

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    Cloud Computing: Browser apps vs Windows apps

    Quote Originally Posted by BromcomPublicRelations View Post
    In the 1990s when Windows replaced DOS, some software vendors tweaked their DOS applications to sell them under Windows without true the benefits of the Windows GUI, multi-tasking, multi-threading and host of other underlying features etc..

    Now 20 years on, in 2010s Windows suppliers will be trying to repeat the history and sell their Windows based applications as “Cloud” solutions where terminal services is under the browser without the true benefit of the Cloud and at the expense of performance, higher server costs, flexibility, dynamism, larger carbon foot-print and underlying host of features etc...[/

    Cloud Computing: Browser apps vs Windows apps:

    Further to the above post, here is a new argument to drive the point home about some software vendors trying to sell Windows apps suitable for Cloud deployment:

    The world’s largest software vendor for Windows applications is Microsoft. In recent days there has been a great deal of news and assumptions on marketing strategies about Microsoft’s push for the Cloud and seeing Office 365 as leading this.

    Clearly Microsoft with billions of dollars of investment in Windows Office 2010, did not try to offer users all over the world the ability to run Windows Office 2010 application within a browser and call it Cloud deployment! Nor did they try to offer hosted web extensions to Office 2010 and call it Cloud deployment. Microsoft developed Office 365 ground up specifically as a browser based product suitable and optimised for Cloud deployment Office 365.

    This example of Microsoft and Office 365 is clear evidence of what true Cloud apps vendors are doing and should be doing! The begging questions is - why didn’t Microsoft host Windows Office 2010 Windows application in their server farms and make it available to subscribers within a browser and call it Cloud service?

    Cloud Computing and Cloud Deployment is still terms that are often misunderstood. Microsoft Office 365 and similar applications will educate the market to a level where soon vendors with Windows apps will be embarrassed to claim that running centrally hosted Windows apps with user access through a browser as meeting the ‘Cloud Deployment’ definition. Yes, they can be hosted but they are not Cloud and Microsoft knows it and so should all software vendors.
    Last edited by BromcomPublicRelations; 29th June 2011 at 04:04 PM. Reason: typo

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