Before I left the UK, I had plenty of meetings and discussions with Microsoft partners and education customers about the impact of Cloud services in education - not just hosted email and collaboration services (like Live@edu), but also the data centre services used by developers and software companies, like Windows Azure. Cloud services are evolving in a way that challenges the fundamentals of IT provision in education - matched with an evolving user base who want anytime, anyplace access to services and data.

Even hugely centralised systems, with large core databases, aren't immune to the changes driven by Cloud services - for example, the large economies of scale (and resulting lower bills) that come from using the shared datacentres that are part of the Cloud. And the other key benefit is the ability to scale a service to match the users - both upwards and downwards - which is really useful in education, which has big peaks and troughs of system usage:

  • Learning Management Systems with 38 weeks a year of heavy student use, and then 14 weeks of minimal use.
  • Examination systems with three weeks of very high use, and 49 weeks of nothing.
  • Admission systems that have a peak period of 3 months, and then go quiet for 9 months.

In all of those examples, the ability to 'switch on' lots of Cloud servers for a short period, and then then 'switch off' is very different to the conventional model, where you build a private server farm capable of handing the peaks, with long periods of idle use in the troughs. And sometimes the cost of the servers needed for the peaks would be so prohibitive the whole project was too expensive.

So moving to the Cloud in education isn't just about outsourcing your data centre - it is also about building a different model of service delivery that could allow you to deliver what was previously unaffordable. And if you can just switch it on and off like a light switch, then you can think quite differently.

For an example of how the Cloud can help, read about how the Windows Azure service was used to rapidly develop and deliver a web service as part of the Queensland relief efforts.