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August, 2010 - Microsoft UK Schools blog - Site Home - MSDN Blogs
The UK Schools Blog
News and views from the Microsoft UK Education Team
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August, 2010

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Do cloud-based datacentres run as fast as your onsite ones


    The Bits blog from the New York Times ran an interesting article a couple of weeks ago called ‘How Fast Can a Cloud Run?’ (you’re right, I’m still catching up with my reading!). It talks about a service called CloudSleuth, which measures the speed of response of various cloud services.

    Our Microsoft Azure cloud came out on top (I’d like to think I’d still be writing this, even if it didn’t).

    Living near clouds is a good thing

    But the thing that interested me was the impact of geography on response times. I used to remember the good-old-days-of-the-Internet, when the service would start to slow down to US-based websites from around 2 o’clock in the afternoon – which coincided with people waking up and getting online on that side of the Atlantic. But that was a decade ago or more – I’d forgotten all about it.


    The chart above, snipped just now from CloudSleuth, shows the picture that caught my eye. Basically, the closer you are to the datacentre, the better your cloud experience is going to be. And because most datacentres are in the US, that’s where the best response times are.

    It sparked off a few of thoughts:

    • How transparent cloud computing is going to be, compared to today (because the whole world can look up your response times)
    • I wonder if that’s why we’ve been having high take-up of our Live@edu cloud email services for education in the UK – because the datacentre is in Dublin, not Dallas.
    • We obviously need more cloud datacentres in Europe.

    So, do cloud-based datacentres run as fast as onsite ones?

    Well, it’s pretty clear that the answer depends on a variety of factors:

    • How fast is the cloud datacentre?
    • How fast is your own datacentre?
    • Where is the cloud datacentre?
    • Where is your users? (because if your user isn’t on-site, they probably get a completely different experience)

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    How do I get a job at Microsoft?


    You may not be surprised to learn that it’s a frequent question that I get asked. And in the summer holidays I know that people’s thoughts often turn to their future, so I thought it was time to share the answer more widely.

    imageThe answer is partially straightforward – you watch, which is where all of our permanent jobs are posted. It allows you to search in different parts of the world, or different specialisms, or on key words. I think the keyword search is important, because many of the jobs are described in Microsoft-centric language (with references to internal acronyms etc) – so if you want to find a job related to education, I’d recommend that you use the keyword search first!

    We also hire quite a lot of people into contract posts – and they will often be dealt with by local employment agencies. The links are all on the careers site too.

    But, of course, finding a job advertised, and actually getting that job are two different things – because there’s the screening and interview process to get through too. The Xbox team have done a great job of describing some of the things you can do to help with that process in their blog post “How do I get a job at Xbox”, which also links to some of the recruitment team’s Career Communities on Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.

    As an aside, if you’re into gaming, the Xbox Engineering Blog is brilliant for detail behind the scenes of the gaming world. Like the post on “Xbox LIVE Avatar Technology” which talks about the science behind creating dynamic avatars in games.

    And finally, your students may be interested in finding out about the graduate and internship schemes. The graduates join on our specialised scheme, which takes candidates who’ve graduated with a 2.1 or above. And each year we take just under 100 interns into our placement scheme in the UK. These students are normally in between their second and third years at university. More information on the Microsoft graduate and placement schemes can be found on this link.

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Saving money - how to get started with server virtualisation


    I’ve been writing quite a bit about examples of schools virtualising their servers, especially as it is one way to significantly reduce your school budgets (Wootton Basset School, West Hatch School, Neville Lovett School and Lodge Park Technology College are all saving a minimum of £10,000 a year through virtualisation). And a recent snapshot survey on EduGeek showed that an ‘average’ secondary school has over a dozen servers. So there’s plenty of reason to consider virtualisation.

    But knowing it’s a good thing to do is one thing. Knowing how to do it is completely different. So here’s a little help

    Of course, one starting point should be the Microsoft website’s Hyper-V section.

    Education Technology Now

    And for education specific information, there’s an added gem available. Alan Richards, who’s the IT Manager at West Hatch School, has written about various aspects of virtualisation on his Education Technology Now blog. At every step of his virtualisation journey he wrote about what he was doing, and the decision he was taking, and it provides a detailed case study on how to virtualise school servers.

    imageThe series of blog posts he’s written take a step-by-step journey:

    The Design Phase

    The second part of the Design Phase

    The Physical Phase

    iSCSI Setup – Video

    Windows Server Failover Clustering Setup – Video

    Windows Server Failover Clustering Setup – Corrections

    Clustered Shared Volumes – Video

    Installing Hyper- V – Video

    Live Server Migration

    And Alan’s now writing more specific posts about specific parts of your school network infrastructure, such as Upgrading, Migrating & Virtualising SharePoint 2010.

    11 Golden Rules for Virtualisation

    I’d also highly recommend Steve Cassidy’s excellent article on PC Pro - 11 golden rules for virtualisation - which provides a straightforward set of rules to consider and decisions to make. For example, he starts by advising that you measure the potential savings (and demonstrate them to the head & school business manager):

    Virtualisation projects pay back by reducing power bills and server purchase budgets. The latter is easy to demonstrate; the former requires some distinctly non-computing work.

    To really see the benefit, you have to be able to compare hosting rack-space invoices, or monthly electricity bills, or stand in the blast of the cooling fans – it’s very difficult to translate the massive efficiency improvements into something tangible. The most basic fat-plug current meter can form the basis of a good solid demo for that disbelieving finance director, standing in the server room watching you start up the old boat-anchors and chalking up their power draw on the wall.

    Find a Microsoft virtualisation partner

    And finally, you might also want to find a Microsoft partner for some advice. The easiest way to do that is to use Microsoft Pinpoint, which allows you to find partners with specific competencies – this link gives you all UK partners who are listed as working in Education, and offering virtualisation solutions. You can easily refine it further by adding your location, and finding the local ones.

    (Looking at the list that Pinpoint shows, it appears that many of our partners haven’t updated their specialisms in the database. So if you’re a Microsoft partner, and you’re reading this, you might want to go to the Microsoft Partner Network, or talk to your account manager, to do this)

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Freebie time - Desktop Virtualisation for dummies booklet


    Let’s start by getting the jokes out of the way. Yes, the ‘…for Dummies’ books are my kind of books. And, No, that’s not me on the front cover.

    Now, that’s over with…


    I’ve got my hands on 30 copies of the ‘Desktop Virtualisation for Dummies’ booklet to give away. And, let’s face it, desktop virtualisation is the kind of thing that needs a booklet like this. Despite believing that it would be important for education (after all, who else runs 300+ end-user applications on their network, with a typical support team of less than three people) I still find it confusing. After all, who wouldn’t be confused when you’re presented with so many choices:

    • User state virtualisation
    • Application virtualisation
    • Session virtualisation
    • Virtual desk infrastructure
    • Blade-based virtual desktops
    • Single-desktop virtual machines

    So this booklet is a good starter guide to help you think about where (and whether) to start with desktop virtualisation. It’s just 32 pages long, so just about the right length, and it sets out the strategies for virtualisation clearly. And it deals with the reasons for doing it in a clear way. For example:

    It’s not as straightforward as saying ‘desktop virtualization will save you money’, but it certainly gives you more options when you come to deciding how that money might be spent – either by reducing operational budgets in terms of minimised downtime, or lowering management and support overheads, or potentially enabling capital expenditure to be reduced or deferred.

    If you’d like your own free copy of Desktop Virtualisation for Dummies, then simply drop Mir an email, and he’ll get one in the post to you (As they say in America, this offer is “good while stocks last, for people in the Great Britain area”)

    ps Have you already implemented some of the strategies for desktop virtualisation? If so, either drop me an email or add a comment to this blog, because it would be good to know how it’s going.

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Building Clouds - how to make a data centre more energy efficient


    imageWe have a team, called Microsoft Global Foundation Services, who have the job of building clouds. Or at least, building ‘the Cloud’ – they design, build, run and support our global data centres which are at the hub of all of our cloud services. In Europe, we have one in Ireland and one in Holland. I don’t know about the Amsterdam one, but the Dublin one is roughly three times the size of BETT at Olympia (imagine – instead of lots of snazzy stands, that space packed full of humming server racks, a bit like our Chicago datacentre on the right). The Dublin one is where we host all of our UK Live@edu email services and data.

    Obviously, at the rate we’re building these data centres, and the huge cost involved, there’s a constant journey to work out how to make the data centres increasingly efficient – especially because of their energy usage, which is a huge part of the cost of running a data centre.

    Now, some of the lessons we’ve learnt aren’t things you can apply in your school server room easily (like cleaning the roof and painting it white, which reduces cooling cost), and playing around with the wall positioning to improve air flow.

    However, some of the things that have been learnt could be of use to you, and help you to reduce your carbon emissions and running costs – like making a trade-off in processor performance to achieve the most efficient Performance per Watt per dollar (which is one reflection of the true cost of providing a server service). We’ve also made adjustments to the temperature servers are cooled to – and switching to using more free air cooling to replace air conditioning. And we’ve even experimented by operating servers outside under a tent.

    imageThe good news is that as we do this work, we publish it in a consumable format. If you’re interested in how to help reduce your server running costs, or in what we’re doing when we’re building massive data centres, then I can recommend “A Holistic Approach to Energy Efficiency in Datacentres” from the Microsoft Global Foundation Services team.

    There is also a lot of detail about different projects going on to look at energy efficient computing, within data centres and elsewhere, on our website. Some of the research up there is around Cloud Computing futures, data centre monitoring and optimisation, reducing disk energy consumption, universal parallel computing and power aware developer tools.

    And finally, if you’re interest knows no boundaries, then you might be interested in the MS Datacenters blog, which has tells the story of how we’ve grown our data centres around the world over the last few years, and shares some more of the lessons we’ve learnt.


  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Parental Engagement–bringing parents on to the Learning Gateway


    Last week I wrote about schools using Learning Gateway to connect with parents and followed that with looking at the practical issue of making sure your data is up-to-date.

    The targets for schools to provide online parental reporting are DCSF & Becta guidelines, not legislation – and as such there probably aren’t penalties for schools that fail to reach the September 2010 deadline for making information available to parents through their school website. However, there are plenty of schools who have done it, and that talk about the benefit it has brought to the families as well as staff in their school.

    Deciding to give parents access to their children’s data is one thing. Making it happen is something else, and it needs a bit of thought, especially as you need to ensure that you’re also meeting the Becta Data Handling Security Guidelines too.

    One of the most practical questions is “How do I give parents their passwords?”

    Do you send them by post once you’re sure they’re going to the right people, who’ve signed a document agreeing to use the system properly? Or, at the other end of the scale of caution, do you insist not only that each parent presents themselves in person to collect a password, but also brings photo ID? I’ve encountered both of these approaches, and a range of others in between, together with various levels of complication about how you deal with separated parents.

    Where a local authority hosts the MIS and the gateway, you’d expect a pretty tightly organised approach.

    That’s the case in Bolton, for example, where the authority hosts the Sims Learning Gateway and although it’s made clear that schools are responsible for running the Gateway, the ICT Unit provides schools with a set of proforma documents that takes them through a process. Parents have to read and sign an Acceptable Use Policy, log in details and passwords are sent separately, once the Acceptable Use return slips are in and contact details matched with the addresses of students. Schools also have the option of a letter inviting parents for a training session at which passwords are given out face-to-face. Neil Gregory, System Consultant at Bolton Schools ICT Unit is happy to discuss the way things work in his authority – you can find him on Twitter @nkgsolutions

    Whether or not you need to give out passwords face-to-face is one of those debating points.

    At Monkseaton High School, for example, passwords are given out to new parents at the first consultation meeting at the start of the academic year. They sit with an administrator who checks their identity and gives them a brief demonstration. Parents who miss the occasion are picked up one by one as they visit the school for other reasons. All of that, of course, takes up time and resources, so issuing passwords by post, after careful checks, has a pragmatic appeal. The thinking at schools where they do that seems to be that the MIS data in question, after all, is quite limited in scope.

    The system will allow access only to the same information that you find in a written school report, and I can’t believe there’s a single school where they haven’t at some time put the wrong report in an envelope.

    The general point, though, is that developing online reporting inevitably throws up detailed issues that either you didn’t see coming, or turned out to be more (or perhaps less) taxing than you thought. It would be good to hear more of your own experiences on this, especially if it helps colleagues who are still working through the process.


    imageYou can read more about Monkseaton’s approach, as well as that of five other schools, in our “Engaging With Parents” case studies


  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Money Saving Tips Update - Bristnall Hall Technology College


    At the end of 2009, I worked with a group of schools, and with Gerald Haigh (an ex-head teacher and educational writer) to create the Money Saving ICT Tips, which was used for a presentation at the BETT 2010 show, and also for a series of later case studies looking at the numbers in more detail. The original idea was to identify ways in which ICT leaders in schools could save money, in both their own budget, and in other budgets around the school. The total saving possible for a secondary school was over £300,000 in 3 years – more than an average school’s three-year ICT budget.

    During this year, we’ve continued this work, with a number of new case studies providing a lot more detail on schools’ approaches to projects like power saving and server virtualisation. Recently, Gerald has been out to visit some schools who’ve followed up on some of the ideas. Here’s what he found at Bristnall Hall Technology College:

    imageBack in January, I contributed to Ray’s discussion of cost saving ideas. One of the schools I referred to was Bristnall Hall Technology College in Sandwell, where ICT and network manager Phillip Wakeman was working to encourage and develop the use of SharePoint for publishing and sharing documents. So as the 2010 Summer Term ended, and as Sandwell’s not far from me I took a trip over to Bristnall Hall to see how Phillip was getting on.

    What I found was a knowledgeable network manager who’s still very focussed on cost saving.

    “In fact,” he says. “It’s one of our constant preoccupations.”

    Both cash and time are in short supply at Bristnall Hall. The four-person IT support department I visited in January is now down to three because one who left hasn’t been replaced. The annual budget’s been reduced too, with further cuts to come. And just to add insult to injury, says Phillip, Bristnall Hall is one of the Sandwell schools that’s missed out on a planned BSF rebuild. As a consequence,

    With very little capital and little in the way of budget we’ll have to compete with schools on each side of us that have had new buildings.

    The first priority after my initial visit had been to develop the school’s SharePoint learning platform, and Phillip tells me that during the Summer term the school’s made huge progress with it. Where there were documents and folders stored in various places on the school network, they are now properly available on the Learning Platform. They’re easily available to share, or to project in class, without printing, and accessible as appropriate to teachers and students from anywhere in school and from home, and to parents.

    The use of SharePoint has grown sevenfold since Easter,” says Phillip. “We’re already seeing the effects on printing, and that should really take off in the Autumn.

    Philip has also made the move – seen in so many of our cost-saving case studies – to virtualised servers. He’s looked at virtualisation in the past, but the availability of the free download version of Hyper-V Server 2008 R2 has made it possible to go ahead, and where he had 20 physical servers he now has 2, with all the well-documented cost benefits to come from reductions in both energy use and hardware replacement.

    Phillip’s very aware of the hidden costs of wasted time, especially since his team’s been reduced, so he’s interested in any software that will make his job easier. He points to Office Communications Server, for example, as a tool for cutting down on the simple business of walking around the school to find people.

    If it only saves ten minutes at a time, that soon adds up.

    Phillip made a strong case to me – and no, he needed no prompting – for sticking to Microsoft products. It’s a policy, he says, that saves valuable time.

    We don’t have to train staff. They come in and find that we’re using packages that are familiar to them.

    So, although the staff member he’s lost was responsible for developing SharePoint, the nature of the software means that everyone’s coped.

    I suppose it’s because SharePoint is easy to use. Once you’ve shown someone what to do they don’t forget it. We do a few training sessions, and then we can point people to the ones who can help them.

    There’s the students to consider too. Wherever they go in the future will need to have used business standard products

    Of course there’s always the cost of licensing, but this, too, is an area where Phillip’s been able to find the most efficient answer for the school.

    In April 2010 we went to the Schools Agreement. It costs us £21,816 a year for 600 desktop machines, about 10 different servers and includes 1,100 Schools Agreement Student Option licences (which gives every student their own copy of Office for home use too). When I told the bursar, it sounded like a lot, but I pointed out that if we’d wanted to buy licenses outright I would have been asking for £100,000, and probably the same again in less than four years time.

    The reason for the projected request for more money is that no school that wants to provide its students with the latest ICT experience can really leave its software alone for five years. Schools agreement recognises this through built-in software assurance that provides for upgrades as and when they arrive.

    Phillip Wakeman purchased his School Agreement licences from Insight UK, a Microsoft Gold Partner and Education Large Account Reseller. Insight's Marketing Director, Paul Bolt, explains, 

    We understood that Phillip was looking for cost savings on licences. We began by producing a 'cost comparison', which revealed that a schools agreement over a period of five years would cost two thirds of what they would have to pay to buy the licences outright.  We were able to achieve this cost saving, whilst still reaching Phillip's requirements in terms of the software upgrades which were required.

    Do the maths, and it’s clear that’s a potential saving of at least £30,000 over five years – although Phillip acknowledges that having laid out £100,000 for licences, he simply wouldn’t have had the money to spend on all the upgrades. Schools Agreement has transformed that picture:

    Up to this Summer we had Office 2003 in school, where students and staff were using 2007 at home. Now, we’ll be able to upgrade everything.

    So, still to come this Autumn, is a roll-out of Windows 7, and the introduction of Office 2010, and SharePoint 2010, as well as number of other upgrades.

    According to Insight, some schools are still reluctant to sign up for an annual commitment, but, a spokeperson there says:

    The figures are quite compelling, and where schools are in competition for students they need to show that their ICT is as up to date as possible

    It’s all going to add much needed support to a school which is focussed on success (last year it was named the most improved school in Sandwell) and which is tackling the after-effects of BSF cancellation.

    Phillip’s very clear about how ICT contributes to the school in terms of interactive lessons, support for SEN students and much more.

    The way to convince any doubters would be to invite them in to see what we do, and then show them what happens if we switch everything off. Everything that happens here is IT driven. There’s nothing we’re not involved in.

  • Microsoft UK Schools blog

    Parental Engagement–from vision to practicalities


    Last year we worked with the DCSF and a group of schools to record their stories of parental engagement, and what they were doing to build a stronger relationship with parents in their school community.

    As well as the written case studies on three secondary schools (Blatchington Mill School, Monkseaton High School and Twynham School) and two primary schools (Hawes Side Primary School and Clunbury C.E. Primary School), each school made two videos – in the first they talk about what they did, and in the second, how they did it.

    You can find all of the case studies and videos on our Engaging With Parents webpage

    And, of course, one of the discoveries is that behind every technology driven process, there’s an awful lot of manual processes that need to be cleaned up first! Gerald Haigh has been talking to schools about some of the very practical day-to-day issues of linking parents into your learning platform or Learning Gateway:

    Organise your parent contacts before you try to engage them online.

    How many contacts do you have on your phone? Do you look at any of them and think, ‘Did I ever know this person? Who is it?’ Are any of them on there two or three times, once with a first name, once with an initial, once under their business name? And if so are the phone numbers the same each time? Do you sometimes think, ‘Must tidy up these contacts when I have a bit of time.’

    Well, maybe you’re much more organised than that, but my guess is you at least recognise the problem. If so, you’ll also see why, when it comes to connecting parents with your school online, you might just need to do a bit of housekeeping on the family contact data. My recent conversations with teachers and network managers about parental engagement have made me very aware of this.

    Your school necessarily keeps a record of each child’s parents or carers, and often a list of other contacts for when the top ones aren’t answering. (Some of these are marginally useful, “If mum out, ring Tesco and ask for Margaret”) They are captured when a child enters the school and updated perhaps by an annual letter home. But is the list accurate and up to date? Especially in a big school where more than one person might enter contact details, and brothers and sisters join the school at different times, they can end up each with separate, slightly different contact details. Let that slide, and it becomes a problem when the time comes to identify who is to have password access to their children’s data.

    Tidying up the data is relatively simple, but it needs to be done and it’s also an opportunity to ensure that everything’s up to date – phone numbers, addresses. One school I spoke to found during this process that a quarter of their parental contact phone numbers were out of date. That’s the kind of thing that goes unnoticed until a child’s waiting for an ambulance, and someone is trying to raise mum or dad on the phone.

    Probably the most sensitive part of the shared data is that on behaviour. Here, too, it’s common to discover that schools have had to do some housekeeping before making the information parent-accessible. As a parent you’d be taken aback to log on and read about, for the first time, a serious issue that you’d expect to have been consulted about in person. Then there’s the contentious business of mentioning the names of other children. An entry on John Jones’s record like, “Had a fight with Chris Smith in Year 8” clearly can’t go out to Mr and Mrs Jones without the Smiths knowledge. So again, it’s either a cleaning up exercise, followed by staff CPD, or a fresh start with no access to historic data.

    If you’re going to tackle this, or help your SIMS Administrator to do so, then there’s an Edugeek thread, “Siblings in SIMS”, from last year that describes the data cleanup problem exactly (It’s worth reading before you get started, so at least you know that it’s not just you…)


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