‘Towards the Serverless School’ – Gerald Haigh looks at Azure in action at South Lee School


The following is a guest post written by Gerald Haigh, looking at South Lee, an independent school in Bury St Edmunds that is well on the way to being a true serverless school. They have achieved this with supplier Tekpool and the Microsoft Azure Cloud as part of a complete IT refresh managed by ‘Think- IT’.

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Towards the Serverless School.

The idea of the ‘serverless school’ has been around ever since the Cloud floated into view some years ago. It’s not difficult to see the attraction. Keeping a school’s technology resources running and up-to-date is a demanding and expensive business. Typically, it requires a dedicated space, ideally air-conditioned, housing a number of power-hungry servers that have to be bought or leased, maintained and ultimately replaced. Add the essential cost of technical support and you end up with a major budget heading. Attempting to economise risks breakdowns, frustrated teachers and major expenditure further down the line.

south lee school

That said, there have been some cost-saving developments. Tech-savvy IT managers have saved their schools significant money by virtualising servers with the aid of Microsoft Hyper-V technology.

Together with ‘private cloud’ initiatives, they can be seen as markers on a road leading towards complete ‘desktop-as-a-service’ cloud hosting.

The final step came with the availability of Microsoft ‘Azure’ enterprise cloud, enabling cloud-hosting for any and all of the services currently provided by on-site servers.

As a result, the true ‘serverless school’ environment is now well within reach.

Tekpool

South Lee, Think IT and Tekpool.

A year ago, staff at South Lee engaged Think-IT’ to carry out a complete review of IT at the school. Think –IT is a DfE recognised procurement framework specifically for cloud based services in education. As part of the review, Think- IT introduced Director of Studies and IT resource manager Paul Begbie to Tekpool, to look at providing a virtual desktop environment – that’s to say, all of the existing and future IT resources of the school hosted in the Cloud, available on demand anytime, anywhere, on any device.

‘I went to a Think-IT conference and realised that there that the virtual desktop model is ideal for the environment of our school,’ says Paul.

“A lot of the work here is done out of school hours. Teachers work from home, and students have homework. I knew we wanted modern IT functionality with tablets, and all that the internet has to offer, integrated into the every day running of the school.”

Tekpool’s virtual desktop environment was installed over the Summer of 2015, and a Beta version was running by the start of the Autumn term. They named the new system ‘Grasshopper’, partly because the young students would like it, and also as a gesture of respect to Grace Hopper (‘Amazing Grace’) the US Navy Admiral who did pioneering work on programming languages in the Forties.

From the start, teachers have been enthusiastic about their new ability to work anywhere, anytime on any device, with the full familiar experience on all of their usual software and applications,

‘Staff are very supportive,’ says Paul Begbie. ‘They are inspired by what is on offer, such as the ability to get on with work and print files from home. In class we see teachers using it to project their lessons on to screens.’

Now, South Lee uses on-site servers only to play DVDs, which are extensively used in multi-media classroom presentations.

‘That’s a half-way stage,’ says Paul Begbie. I envisage in the future we’ll be able to move their content to Azure and log straight in to run them.’

Meanwhile, the drastic reduction in the need to look after servers is a huge bonus for the school.

“We have a part-time technician, and there’s an IT teacher and myself. I did have a background in IT years ago. But really, an organisation of our size cannot maintain the expertise to run an in-house system. We want the management of our IT to be situated in the best place for it, which is in Microsoft’s data centre.”

Be prepared.

Ahead of the installation, though, he first step for South Lee -- and this is a lesson for all schools embarking on an IT refresh or upgrade, especially where cloud access is involved– was to upgrade the wifi.

‘We rejigged the whole network,’ says Paul Begbie. ‘What we had was archaic. Now we have a superb wifi network.’

There are still occasional problems, however, which will ultimately be solved with an extra broadband line dedicated to the Azure platform.

Better service

Tekpool CEO Jason Taylor says,

“The beauty of our platform is that it will run on almost any device, providing those who use it the familiar look and feel of a traditional Microsoft desktop and all of the applications which run on it.”

Not only that, as enhancements to the Azure platform are made, they can be passed on straight away, as Jason Taylor goes on to point out.

“As Microsoft provision new and faster servers in Azure we as customers can move our clients to faster servers instantly as part of the service. You can’t replicate that in a traditional hardware scenario especially with the limited budgets available to schools.”

Cost saving.

There are clear and significant cost savings for a school to be had from reducing, or entirely eliminating on-site servers. Apart from the obvious elimination of the cost of buying, leasing and replacing servers, there will be a dramatic reduction in electricity. The server room can also be reclaimed for teaching and learning. Then there’s the considerable saving in cost, time and convenience that comes when technical support becomes either unnecessary, or can be directed more productively to helping teachers make the most of the available technology. Buying through Think- IT gives schools easy and direct access to leading-edge companies like Tekpool.

As Paul says,

“We have not had to purchase any network servers. Based on evidence from other schools, we considered that we would probably have had to take on a full-time technician to support the network infrastructure had we not gone for the Cloud-based solution.”

Looking forward

At the moment staff use the virtual desktop system more than students do, because student access is currently limited to the computer suites. The next step is move to one-to-one student devices. The school is taking its time with this, says Paul Begbie, trialling different devices, making sure of taking the right decisions.

“Given the age range – two to thirteen – requirements may well differ. The juniors could want something robust, with detachable keyboards, perhaps Microsoft Surface.”

In fact the strength of the Tekpool Azure-based platform is that any wifi enabled device, with any operating system will run on it, maintaining consistent look and feel.

‘Moving forward, we know that Think- IT will help us in making the right decisions for our school.’

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If, like South Lee, your school is considering new devices, then we’d recommend you take a look at our Devices in Education eBook (below). We are also offering a 30% discount on Surface 3 bundles through our partners until March 31st 2016.


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