The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh.
Microsoft partner Capita SIMS are currently on a ‘direction of travel’ (to use their own term) which involves offering their market-leading management information system fully hosted, using the Microsoft Azure enterprise cloud. As more users move to Capita’s Azure-hosted SIMS, developers and SIMS support teams are able progressively to make the product’s array of functions easier to use and more accessible to teachers and parents, anytime, anywhere, on any Wi-Fi-enabled device.
On a hot day in July, I went to the Priory Business Park near Bedford to meet two of the top people at Capita’s SIMS management information system (MIS) company offices. Phil Neal is Managing Director and Graham Cooper is Head of Product Strategy.
Capita SIMS is a long-standing Microsoft partner. Microsoft SQL Server, SharePoint and other Microsoft technologies support numerous SIMS functions and there’s constant dialogue between the two organisations.
On this visit, however, I was particularly interested in following up on Capita’s BETT 2015 announcement that they were making SIMS available to users fully hosted by them – all features, including third party applications - using Microsoft’s ‘Azure’ enterprise Cloud.
Capita’s move to Azure has been undertaken with deliberate care. The idea of cloud-hosting, with web access, clearly has the potential to be a game-changer for MIS, and a few years ago some of Capita’s competitors took the opportunity to move quickly with products intended to present the user with a familiar and accessible web environment. I was one of many who saw the attraction – it seemed very much in tune with the way that management information systems generally, including SIMS, were moving beyond the school office to become classroom tools for teachers. I believed it inevitable that SIMS would follow suit and around that time, probably in 2011, I asked Phil Neal when we were going to see a full cloud-based web version of SIMS.
He pointed out then that the SIMS offering is comprehensive and multi-faceted, and has a massive user base. So, although an eventual move to the cloud was inevitable, it would only happen when it was possible to guarantee the full SIMS offering and functionality to all current and prospective users. He clearly believes that some MIS suppliers moved to the Cloud before the Cloud was properly ready – and some subsequent events have tended to justify that assessment.
Now, of course, Microsoft Azure is well established as an enterprise cloud, offering all that Phil Neal was then looking for.
There were still some initial steps, though. At BETT 2013, Capita announced SIMS ‘Agora’, an online parent payment system linked to SIMS, hosted in Azure. At the time, Graham Cooper emphasised that because ‘Agora’, for the first time, brings large numbers of parents into the picture, it has to be reliable, robust and responsive. ‘You just need to know it’s going to be there. You can’t have it not taking a payment.’
And then, also for the first time, Agora makes Capita into a user of a service, which means that rather than build and run the infrastructure that underpins Agora, they buy it in from the cloud. The consultant and blogger known as ‘The Scarfed One’ explained this concept very well in his appropriately titled blog in May last year, ‘Agora – The "New Breed" of SIMS’.
‘Agora’ was a very clear pointer to the way SIMS as a whole was developing. In fact the phrase, ‘It’s the direction of travel’ was the phrase used by Phil Neal at our recent meeting when I suggested that the corporate strategy was to move SIMS entirely to the Azure cloud.
But there’s more to it than that. Earlier I mentioned the way MIS has moved into the classroom, putting data in the hands of teachers and parents. ‘Agora’ is part of that, not just because it offers parents and school managers an efficient and reliable way of handling payments for school dinners, trips, uniforms – anything at all – but because it drives parents regularly to SIMS and increases the likelihood that they will engage with other aspects of their children’s classroom life and work.
Also important in this move to open up and simplify access to the MIS is SIMS ‘Teacher App’, also ‘Azure’ hosted, which, in effect, puts the essentials of SIMS on a teacher’s phone or tablet, so that they enter data, see their timetable, catch up on the essentials of a class they’re about to take. I can think of a dozen ways in which it would have been a lifesaver for me years ago as a fairly disorganised teacher of a range of subjects and classes in a big split-site comprehensive school. It’s a native app, and the Windows version is neatly designed with the Windows look and feel, together with all the connectivity that comes with the Microsoft environment.
Another knowledgeable blog from ‘The Scarfed One’ in June this year reviews the SIMS Teacher App.
So, put together ‘Agora’, the SIMS Teacher App and the development of ‘Azure’ and the consequent availability of Azure-hosted SIMS, and what we see is the familiar and almost ubiquitous SIMS MIS becoming readily accessible (with appropriate safeguards and an adequate Wi-Fi connection) to all users, anytime, anywhere, in the world, on any device, whether phone, tablet, desktop or laptop, IOS, Android or Windows. As Graham Cooper says, of the steady move of SIMS into the classroom, ‘The hardware is becoming cheaper and more reliable, and the software more useful to classroom teachers. Now, it’s about where, not how, the data is used.’
Here, Graham and Phil pointed to the growing availability of low-cost Windows tablets – and we are, in fact, hearing more and more stories of schools finding that an effective one-to-one policy is to have Surface 3 for teachers and sub-£100 small Windows tablets for students.
And it doesn’t stop there. The great thing about effective remote hosting is that it removes from the user so much administrative and technical work. There are no on-site servers to care for and replace. All the routine upgrades and new releases that have always been part of looking after SIMS, are automatically and instantly available to the user on log-in, using whatever device they choose, at home, at school or (perish the thought) via the free wifi in the Cadiz cruise ship terminal.
Graham Cooper explains:
‘The advantage for us, is that certain applications such as SIMS Discover, need to be set up properly in the school and it requires a degree of understanding to work properly. Now, we can make certain everything is fine and ensure they’re making the best of what they have.’
‘Azure’ hosting by Capita currently starts at £500 for primary and £1500 for secondary. But, as with all systems, the calculation and the comparison with any other way of running the MIS has to be aimed establishing a total cost of ownership – which is, I would say, where a financially alert school business manager comes into the picture.
At the time of writing, about a hundred schools have signed up for Azure hosted SIMS, with many more expressions of interest. So there’s a long way to go, given the fact that there are 22,000 SIMS users in UK. So, are there barriers to growth?
The answer to that is that innovation always bumps up against something. So, for example, across the country there are many local authority and independent SIMS support teams providing first class service to the schools which have SIMS on-premise, and, in some cases they also offer a hosted service from their own servers.
Phil Neal’s answer is that support teams which embrace the change will be able to take advantage of being free from the limitations of the technical responsibilities.
‘They do need to change their mindset and see that they can put all their effort into the important support tasks around school improvement.’
He points out, too, that local authority-based remote hosting depends on servers which have finite lives. By implication, it’s thought that the best option will be not to replace them but to take the Azure option which may well be more cost effective, especially in terms of total cost of ownership.
The one barrier to remote hosting which is difficult to quantify is the feeling that it’s good to have your data safely at home rather than in distant servers. To which, always, the answer has been to point out the contrast between an enterprise level data centre with layers of redundancy and instant ‘failover’ on the one hand, and a school, or even local authority, server room on the other. There’s little doubt about which, in actual day-to-day practice, is more secure.