Unique challenges facing educational institutions–and the cloud proposition

By Eugenio Ferrante, General Manager, Cross-Platform Applications, Asia-Pacific, Parallels

Innovative educational institutions such as schools and universities are similar to businesses in that they both continue to require better and more effective ways to implement IT services, without the high cost and complexities associated with maintenance and upgrades. They also need to respond quickly to new opportunities by implementing business critical applications, as well as leverage data to make well-informed decisions and ensure competitiveness – think of the proliferation of E-learning courses (have a look at this infographic).

Eugenio Ferrante
Eugenio Ferrante

Yet, educational institutions have unique IT challenges all their own. They own and analyse a large amounts of data, most of which will have to be retained and secured for years – protecting personal information, safeguarding intellectual property, sheltering a draft exam paper from students who are keen to get hold of it before they should. The number of users may run into tens of thousands.

A patchwork of legacy systems, totally different from one department to another, masquerades as an IT infrastructure. Staff and students clamour for constant remote access to learning resources through whichever device they happen to be using. Faculty members build their own environments—we know this, because more than once, we have got to work with a new customer through a faculty member who used Parallels Desktop for Mac on his/her own.

IT departments need to provide efficient, reliable and secure 24/7 service that enable school constituents not just remote access to content, but also to collaboration tools that enhance teaching, learning, and research.

With the number of users ranging in the region of several hundreds to thousands, the increasing complexity in managing IT in an educational environment has never been more challenging – a situation that usually calls for additional IT headcounts and budget. Managing a patchwork of legacy systems that are totally different from one department to another, as well as students and staff owning more than one mobile devices running different platforms further complicate the situation.

IT departments need to provide technology that allow greater interoperability between campus and various user platforms.

Also, educational institutions have difference finance models–they can be a combination of tuition, philanthropy, investments, public funding, and research dollars–purchasing decisions may take longer because they usually involve getting a consensus, especially when allocating IT budgets from limited resources–be it for upgrades or additional hardware purchases.

CloudImageCloud–and the right software  

Thankfully, it is now possible to deal with these challenges through software, by implementing virtualisation technology and creating a private cloud. All data are centralised on the private cloud and accessed via thin clients, or any other computer or mobile device which is running client software.

A private cloud requires a web server that acts as a web portal to accept public connections; a gateway server that relays authentication credentials between the private network and the web server; and back-end components, the most important of which are a hypervisor to run virtual machines, a connection broker to match end user session requests to virtual machines, and a management console.

Overall, educational institutions require software solutions that are cost-effective, secure, and easy to use.

Though budget constraints may restrict choice, educational institutions can have the best of both worlds – through a cost-effective solution that offers reduced expenditure on hardware as well as software licensing costs.

The right software not only enables access to the private cloud through low-cost thin clients but also prolongs the life of outdated PCs by transforming them into pseudo-thin clients.

With application virtualisation, which allows any device to run an application even if the operating system is not supported or there is a resource-sharing conflict, the right software integrates seamlessly with a mixed bag of networks and devices. There is no need to spend a lot of money on re-engineering the system.

The right software enables monitoring of app usage, preferably through inbuilt reporting and analytics tools. This helps ensure that staff and students have access to the apps they need, while eliminating apps that are dormant, and ensuring compliance with licences.

It also offers centralised management, preferably via a central console. This saves IT administrators’ time and cuts travel costs drastically because all sites, even campuses in different locations, can be managed remotely. The ability to provide remote assistance to users by shadowing PCs yields the same benefits.

EducationImageSecurity is of utmost importance. When using a private cloud, data never leave the cloud, so there is no security risk even if a device is stolen – a common occurrence on a busy and crowded campus. IT administrators have full control over the school network, enabling them to grant and/or prevent access to critical asset – with varying security clearances – to individuals, groups or departments. They also ensure that regular backups are strictly enforced to prevent data loss.

The right software uses encryption, such as SSL communication. Software that allows second-level authentication – through a Safenet authentication server, a Radius server, or other popular authentication servers – is even better.

Computer test labs tend to be inherently risky by their very nature. The right software limits the ability of students and school staff to render the operating system unusable, or to infect it with malware, by generating a virtual clone (a new and fully working operating system) for each user, whenever needed, in minutes.

Convenience and ease of use are also of paramount importance to IT administrators and users alike. The right software makes life easier for staff and students by enabling access to resources from home (or anywhere else) using a multitude of different devices: PCs, Macs, laptops, iPhones, iPads, Android phones and tablets, Windows phones, Chromebooks, even Raspberry Pi. Access is also possible from any HTML5 browser, just by typing credentials into a browser on shared workstations.

An example of a powerful yet simple and scalable software solution that fits the bill is Parallels 2X RAS, a cost-effective, secure, and convenient connection broker that allows staff and students to access data, desktops and applications through a wide variety of devices, from anywhere, at any time. Now used by reputable educational institutions around the world, school administrators looking to modernise their network infrastructure will benefit from checking it out themselves.