Interview | Mike Jones: Moving Schools From Monolithic to Customized, Cloud-Based

In the past decade, many schools have turned to software-as-a-service (SaaS) solutions and packaged software for their administration needs, from Student Information Systems to transcript and archiving applications. But with the cloud emerging as a major player in school IT, attitudes towards increasingly inflexible SaaS solutions and high-priced software packages are changing, with more and more schools reconsidering what was long considered the “boogeyman” of school IT: custom applications. In the school IT world, custom app development tends to be viewed as time consuming, expensive and difficult to grow—at least pre-cloud computing. Now, custom development comes without the high costs and equipment requirements, but can still be a tricky undertaking for schools without large IT departments. So what do schools need to know about building in the cloud? Mike Jones with OutSystems (a provider of application development platforms) has helped several schools make the transition from monolithic SaaS systems and software packages to customized, cloud-based applications. Here he explains the ins and outs of transitioning application development to the cloud and the new challenges the medium presents. Mike also shares anecdotes from some of OutSystems’ successful school-to-cloud transitions and provides best practices when it comes to building custom apps in the cloud.

Victor: What is Platform-as-a-Service and what does it offer to schools?

Mike: Platform-as-a-Service, or PaaS as it’s more commonly known, is a solution that facilitates the entire application lifecycle in the cloud. Effectively, this allows developers to create, deploy and maintain their suite of cloud applications without needing to worry about hardware/software requirements, provisioning or underlying infrastructure.

From a school IT perspective, PaaS allows them to build and maintain suites of custom applications in the cloud at a fraction of the cost of typical application development.  PaaS allows schools to bypass not only the rather steep hardware and software requirements of traditional development, but also the personnel costs that come with maintaining this infrastructure. And, in some instances the right PaaS will also reduce the need to hire specialized developers to create customized applications.

Victor: How are school IT departments currently looking at custom application development?  Is the practice fading or growing?

Mike: If you look at custom app development in education over the past decade, it’s easy to make the assumption that the practice has fallen on hard times. Schools want to improve quality of education, which means putting more emphasis on resources that affect students, rather than put money towards “intangible” expenses like application development. As such, with the rise of Software-as-a-Service (SaaS), schools saw the opportunity to cut IT costs while still maintaining key back-end applications.

What has become readily apparent, however, is that SaaS has severe limitations in the education space, especially when it comes to customizing a SaaS solution for a specific school or district. The expensive (and sometimes impossible) nature of such a task has made IT teams reconsider custom development, something that has become much more feasible thanks to PaaS and cloud computing in general.

So, while custom development faded throughout the decade, the practice is on the upswing once more as schools begin to leverage new cloud offerings like PaaS.

Victor: Has cloud computing changed the way that schools approach custom app dev?

Mike: Cloud computing has radically changed the way that schools approach all aspects of IT, but especially application development. While building a custom application once required thousands (if not tens of thousands) of dollars in hardware, software, power, cooling, facilities and operational personnel, the same project can now be accomplished with a few dollars and no physical requirements.  Using a cloud service like Amazon EC2 school IT teams can quickly provision an enterprise-class computing infrastructure and, if coupled with a cloud-ready development platform, they can start developing immediately, slashing not only development costs but also project timeframes.

Victor: What are the benefits of schools developing their own custom applications?  Are there any drawbacks?

Mike: The biggest benefit of a school developing an application is that the application is tailored to their exact specifications. With SaaS solutions and software packages, school IT is often required to fit a round peg into a square hole, so to speak. These applications rarely meet the needs of a specific school and require lengthy, often expensive, integration projects to actually work with existing school processes and systems.  None of these problems exist with custom applications – because the school is building the application, the application is tailored to fit their exact needs along with integrating seamlessly within their IT ecosystem.

As far as drawbacks, without the cloud, custom application development is prohibitively expensive for school IT teams due to the operational costs of the hardware and operating environment. While the cloud does rectify this situation, custom development challenges can also exist on the project management side – unless a school looks at taking an Agile or other flexible approach to the project, development can often stall when faced with ever-evolving user needs.

Victor: What is the difficulty curve in terms of transitioning application development to the cloud?  Are there any best practices/tips for administrators considering the shift?

Mike: Transitioning to the cloud is actually quite easy, particularly when a school selects a PaaS provider that meets their needs. If anything, application development becomes easier in the cloud, because many of the restrictions placed on the practice via terrestrial processing power are removed. In essence, if you have an effective in-house development team already, they’ll only improve once the project is moved to the cloud.

As far as tips go, it’s vital that schools select a PaaS vendor that makes it easy to move applications back and forth between in-house servers and the cloud, as well as between clouds. While the cloud is fantastic for development, vendor lock-in can become a concern, especially given how quickly the medium can change on a day-to-day basis.

Another good tip is to make sure that the final application built using the PaaS solution is made up of native code (Java and .NET) and commodity databases like SQL and Oracle. Beyond this, schools will also want to ensure that their vendor can easily mesh with their existing systems, to simplify the integration of newly-built cloud apps.  In this regard, web services are the way to go, so IT teams should strive to ensure that the chosen package offers good API access.

Victor: Can you point to any schools that have successfully built and deployed custom applications in the cloud?

Mike: Faith Academy, a private school with several physical locations and a virtual school, is a great example of an educational institution that has embraced the promise of cloud computing. The school’s IT department consisted of a single person who, when faced with growing costs of their existing SaaS-based Student Information System, decided to take Faith’s IT future into his own hands.

To support his student body and staff he leveraged the cloud for computing resources, as he could not afford to build and maintain his own infrastructure – something he took for granted with the SaaS SIS. Using Amazon’s EC2 offering, he selected OutSystems’ Agile Platform for development as it automated the complete application lifecycle in the cloud. Once set up, he never looked back.

Faith built a student information system, a transcript archiving system, a teacher grade book and several other administrative applications in the cloud, saving the school thousands of dollars in licensing and development costs. Most of all, through the cloud, the school has access to enterprise-class datacenter resources that would otherwise be inaccessible to Faith’s IT department.

Victor: What’s the most common challenge facing schools when it comes to adopting cloud development?

Mike: The most common challenge is really more about perception than anything technical. Cloud computing offers a slew of benefits, but it also requires a loss of control – data, infrastructure and other critical IT assets are still owned by the school but are no longer under the direct control of an IT team. This can be disconcerting for any school district regardless of how forward-thinking they are when it comes to technology.

To push through this roadblock, schools need to consider a hybrid approach to cloud development. Several PaaS solutions offer the ability to seamlessly push applications to-and-from the cloud, making it easier to retain some semblance of asset control while still leveraging the benefits of cloud computing. By taking these baby steps, IT can come to terms with the benefits of the cloud and realize how much more they would gain via a full deployment.

Victor: How do schools address emerging platforms, including mobile and tablets, in their custom development practices?

Mike: Custom development is no longer about developing a Web application, mobile application or native app. It’s about finding the path to the universal application – an app that can be used across platforms (mobile/tablet/Web) and operating systems (iOS, Android, Windows Mobile, and so on) but has code residing in a single central resource. This eliminates the client-server roadblock (where application code must be updated on both the server and the client device) and makes it far easier to manage applications across the lifecycle.

The universal application isn’t some pipe dream – with the power offered by cloud computing and the flexible environments offered by many PaaS vendors, building a cross-platform application is easier than ever. And it’s highly useful for schools that are looking for ways to leverage emerging technology, like cutting edge tablets and lightweight notebook computers, for a better student experience.

Victor: What does the re-emergence of custom development and the rise of cloud computing in education mean for the future of school IT?

Mike: Cloud computing and custom development mean that schools can now craft their application mix to meet the unique needs of their faculty and students, rather than trying to jury-rig a pre-built application to do something it was never intended to do. The cloud also means that schools are free to access enterprise-class IT resources that would otherwise be far beyond a typical IT department’s budget, pushing development projects into the realm of cutting-edge.

Additionally, moving to the cloud has clear cost benefits. Not only are the upfront and maintenance costs of the hardware eliminated, but also the IT resources that manage them can be reassigned.

With better and better development resources, schools will be able to more effectively leverage new technology for their students, from tablets to smartboards, enhancing the educational experience into a curriculum that evolves with changing technology.


Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: 




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