Zynstra – controlling the balance between cloud and on-premise through Azure

The following is a guest post from Gerald Haigh.

Zynstra’s innovative Cloud-managed server appliances, together with Microsoft technologies including ‘Azure’, and Office 365, offer schools a unique opportunity to provide staff and students with a true 21st Century IT environment.

A school now typically has a ‘hybrid’ IT system – that’s to say it’s partly on premise and partly in the Cloud. Where one school might put as many applications into the Cloud as possible, reducing on-premise presence to the necessary minimum, another might take a more conservative approach, preferring to keep all but the most ‘cloud appropriate’ operations on its own servers.

Now, with Zynstra, a school has complete control over the balance between cloud and on-premise, and yet at the same time, access to Azure, Microsoft’s enterprise Cloud, ensures that everything, including the on-premise element, is reliable, secure and best in class.


You can find Zynstra on the Misco stand (E70) at BETT 2015

The core business of a school is learning and teaching. Anything that gets in the way and diverts the attention of professionals, or makes unexpected holes in the finances, potentially affects the performance of its students. So when it comes to IT, they want it to be reliable, speedy, capable of handling the demands placed on it and, above all, always available, anytime, anywhere.

In fact, that’s quite a challenge. Unprecedented rates of progress and expansion of demand – not least the rapid move towards one device per student -have combined to put school IT resources under continuous pressure. Suppliers play their part in helping to keep everything under control. School wi-fi systems have improved enormously, and schools are increasingly aware of the need to invest in adequate, future-proof coverage. Software, while endlessly proliferating in variety and functionality is at the same time easier to use – intuitive, integrated, touch-screen enabled.

And then, of course, there’s the Cloud, the new trouble-free home for so much that a school has to do. The prime example of what Cloud can do for a school is seen in Microsoft’s Office 365, which puts a rich suite of enterprise- level creative and collaborative technologies at the user’s fingertips, all delivered as a service.

However, though Office 365 offers what’s best in Cloud applications, most schools require levels of functionality and specialist applications such as management information systems and curriculum resources that, either by necessity or for preference, will continue to be hosted partly or wholly on-site in the school’s own servers. That resulting combination of cloud and on-site IT provision is known, for obvious reasons, as a ‘hybrid’ system and in the vast majority of schools will continue to be the default approach.

The obvious difficulty for the school of the hybrid system is that there’s still a need to manage a set of physical servers, organising and budgeting for technical support, provision for failure, regular update protocols, budgetary planning for upgrades and ultimate replacement. So, in fact, the school is still unable to reap all the benefits of the Cloud, and there’s still the possibility of an urgent knock on the leader’s door.

And that is where Zynstra enters the picture. Where existing hybrid systems tend to be piecemeal, with on-site and cloud applications added, updated and replaced on an ad-hoc basis, Zynstra enables a school to plan its hybrid system ground-up to meet present and future needs. It offers users the choice of when and whether to place its key applications on premise or in the Cloud. It does this by providing a hybrid system using HP technology in one appliance, physically on-site but managed via the Cloud using patent ‘keep current’ and ‘keep consistent’ technologies which ensure that all Zynstra sites are kept in step, providing built-in reliability. At the same time Zynstra integrates access to Office 365 with all of the advantages that come with it. Direct responsibility for maintenance, upgrade, back-up, future-proofing is remotely managed – Zynstra even ‘reverse backs up’ Office 365 so the school still has access even if connectivity is lost. The good news for IT managers and their teams is that they are relieved of much of their ‘firefighting’, and can focus on their key role of supporting senior leadership and teachers in planning and implementing ICT for learning.

A crucial element of Zynstra lies in the way it uses Cloud technology for back-up and disaster recovery. It backs up everything, including work done in Office365 into Microsoft’s ‘Azure’ enterprise cloud service, so disaster recovery, for example, is complete and easy. That’s a real bonus, given that very many experienced school leaders have, at some time in their careers, endured a serious data loss through fire, flood or basic procedural error. In fact, a school’s whole network could be up and running after a disaster as quickly as 4 hours – running completely from the Cloud until a new appliance can be sent out to replace the one that befell the disaster.

Zynstra is supplied through accredited partners who will help the school decide which size and flavour of the Zynstra system they need, add their own branding in some cases, and tailor the appliance to schools’ individual needs, incorporating and configuring the required applications.

Cost, of course, is crucial, and here the advantage of Zynstra is that although it sits in school as a piece of equipment, it’s neither bought nor leased. Instead, the whole package is paid for as a service, akin to gas and electricity. The annual bills (or monthly if required) are kept down because Zynstra have achieved a breakthrough by negotiating an education level licensing agreement for the use of Microsoft Azure, something not previously available to a reseller. A school can also scale up or down in line with pupil numbers, so need only buy the service needed at the time – so no more expenditure on unused capacity.

That’s all fine of course, but what do schools think? Dawn House School is a specialist school for children from five to nineteen who have severe or complex communication difficulties. An Ofsted inspection in Spring 2014 judged the school ‘Outstanding’ in all categories. However, the school’s leadership found that continued progress was hampered by IT provision that was outdated and inadequate for its purpose. Increasing use of portable devices in the classroom, and the need to store the video material which is extensively used for assessment, meant that the system was slow, unresponsive and prone to failure.

At the same time, any solution to this had to be achieved within the budget of a small school. Zynstra and its partner provided the complete affordable answer, providing reliability, future-proofing and security. The school has been able to increase classroom use of tablets, knowing that they will respond quickly, and that there is storage capacity for all current and future needs.

‘We also know that the solutions can be reinstated in hours from the Cloud in the event of an onsite failure. Very few schools have this level of disaster recovery in place.’

(It’s not just that. Even if there is a disaster, the same service will be available from the Cloud for ten days until a new appliance is shipped in.)

Many schools struggle financially to keep their IT provision fit for purpose right now, let alone for the future. Zynstra, paid for as a service, from revenue, with no capital expenditure, is the cost-effective answer, providing an agile, ‘always-on’, future-proof, easy to manage hybrid solution with all the difficult on-site maintenance and updates done for you.

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