Azure Hosted SIMS – Microsoft Partner Capita SIMS at BETT 2016

With the recent announcement that Microsoft’s first UK based datacentres are set to come online in 2016, many schools, colleges and universities who previously had location related reservations preventing them moving to the cloud are now looking  to make the transition.

With this in mind, Gerald Haigh caught up with Capita to talk about Azure Hosted SIMS ahead of next month’s BETT exhibition.


Microsoft Partner Capita SIMS at BETT 2016

Azure Hosted SIMS

Ever since the advent, in the late Eighties, of Local Management of Schools (LMS), SIMS, boosted by the 1994 acquisition by Capita, has been a key player in the story of educational technology, becoming far and away the market leader in the MIS sector.

Currently, in fact, 80 per cent of UK schools are users. Once the administrator’s right hand, it has extended its reach to include leaders of learning. teachers and parents.

Year by year Capita SIMS have made significant announcements and updates at the BETT Show, and new products have figured numerous times as finalists or winners in the annual BETT Awards in fact SIMS Assessment, updated to accommodate the new ‘level-free’ world, is nominated for a 2016 award.

Capita, Microsoft and MIS in the Cloud

At the heart of SIMS sits a Microsoft SQL database, and Capita developers have always worked closely with Microsoft colleagues to ensure that teachers and administrators always have the best experience. Much of this Capita/Microsoft collaboration is concerned with ‘back-office’ functions below the radar of the daily users. Among more visible developments, though, is the hosting of SIMS on Microsoft’s ‘Azure’ enterprise cloud.

Given that SIMS, whether on premise in a school, or hosted by a local authority, has a set of minimum requirements, including dedicated servers of appropriate capacity, needing a refresh on a three-year cycle, the possibility of moving the whole system to the cloud has obvious attractions. A number of SIMS competitors, in fact, have in recent years introduced their own cloud-hosted MIS with varying degrees of success. Not all have survived and none seem to have made serious inroads into Capita’s market share. Those developments though, seemed to me to be a straw in the wind, and in a conversation in March 2011 with Head of Product Strategy Graham Cooper I suggested that a cloud-hosted SIMS was bound to come. There was no denial, but the message was that SIMS, with a huge and diverse customer base, needed to be confident of continuity and quality of service.

As Graham said in that Spring of 2011,

“We’ve experienced times when a SIMS innovation has been at the expense of losing something somewhere in the system. But any cloud based SIMS can’t just be as good as it is now, it has to be better.”

Well, of course cloud-hosting did come, and the answer lay with Microsoft’s Azure.

Capita chooses Azure.

Capita, ever-conscious of the need to take the user community along, moved SIMS to Azure a step at a time.

In December 2012, at their own Partner Conference, Capita announced that their new product ‘Agora’ – a payment system for parents – would be hosted in Azure.

Will other products move to Azure? I asked Capita SIMS CEO Phil Neal then.

He replied as cautiously as you’d expect, but it was pretty clear that unless something went unexpectedly wrong, that was the direction of travel. So, at BETT 2015, Capita and Microsoft were able to announce the availability of fully functional cloud-hosted SIMS, including the Financial Management System (FMS) using the Azure platform. Phil Neal said then,

“We selected Microsoft Azure as it has proven to be the most secure, reliable hosting platform across many sectors and we believe it offers the most affordable solution for our SIMS and FMS customers. We know it will give our customer base what they want from cloud technology; flexibility at a reasonable price and freedom from server maintenance, data backup and software upgrades.”

BETT 2015: Capita SIMS Partners with Microsoft for Azure Cloud Education Solution

Graham Cooper pointed out to me this December that those local authorities which host SIMS on their own servers will, in time, be hit with upgrade and replacement bills at a time when budgets are being cut, or even wiped out altogether. The same argument applies to schools which have their own on-premise SIMS.

What’s also irresistibly attractive is the prospect, for leaders, administrators, teachers and parents is that cloud-hosted SIMS is available anytime, anywhere (subject to the usual access protocols) on any suitable internet-enabled device.

As these benefits become known, take-up of Azure-hosted SIMS is steadily increasing. Phil Neal says,

“Hosted SIMS now provides more than 5,000 teachers with the flexibility to work from any location using their PC, Apple Mac or tablet device and more than 500 schools across the country no longer need to worry about unnecessary hardware or maintenance tasks.”

I spoke to a school administrator who is reaping the benefit of that. Julie Coulter is Office Manager at Shortstown Primary School in Bedford,

“Hosted SIMS means staff who have to travel a long distance to school can log into SIMS from home and access live data 24/7 if they want to… It also means teachers can enter and retrieve the latest assessment information for an individual or class from any part of the school building with a Wi-Fi connection. Also for a primary school with limited IT support, it is great not to have to worry about software upgrades or managing servers.”

That last point is important. Education practice, and the rules and regulations which surround it, change all the time and keeping SIMS up to date has always been a challenge for technical staff. To be free of that is no small thing, and, importantly, it frees technicians and their leaders to concentrate on the adoption, implementation and appropriate use of what is a vast array of SIMS functions which, in truth, are sometimes under-used by school staff who don’t have time to explore them.

Finally, in parallel with the arrival of Hosted SIMS, we see the continued development of the Windows version of the SIMS Teacher app, which brings the essentials of pupil data on to the tablet in the teacher’s hand, available instantly at the start of the lesson. The app looks to me like the latest point on a long road that started with SIMS confined to one administrator in the school office, made its way through teachers and leaders and now ends up sitting on the teacher’s tablet device, providing essential information about the class, supporting teaching and learning which right now is crucial in the classroom.

Further reading:

A blog by Capita Hosting Director Winston Poyton lists the cost and efficiency benefits of Azure-hosted SIMS.

For information about Hosted SIMS, the SIMS Teacher app and all SIMS applications, visit Capita at Stand B190, BETT 2016.

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