Decoding the Cloud: Answering All Your Questions (And Some More Besides)


The benefits of the cloud are compelling - and many educators are exploring ways in which a centralised virtual data centre can enhance the student experience. Cloud services can help teachers and students collaborate better, make information more accessible (and trackable) and guarantee the stability and security of infrastructure  But there is still some confusion in the market which can leave institutions unsure where to start. 

This FAQ addresses the need for clarity and is an antithesis to ‘cloud washing’ - the attempt by many vendors to rebrand an old product or service by attaching the buzzword “cloud” to it. So, whether you’re a cloud novice, or you really know your stuff, we bet that there are a few niggling questions you need answering.  We hope that our series of decoding the cloud blogs will help.


Q: So, what is the cloud? I should already know this, right?

A: Not really. In the face of information overload (and assumed knowledge), it can be useful to go back to basics - and establish what is meant, exactly, by cloud computing - and analyse the potential benefits for your institution. Simply put. The cloud is a network of servers, and each server has a different function. Some servers use computing power to run applications or "deliver a service. And, chances are, you encounter the cloud daily. From Google Drive to Netflix and Spotify, any time you access or store information without using up your phone or laptop’s internal data, you're storing information on the cloud.

When it comes to benefits, working on the cloud allows your organisation to be nimble, efficient and cost-effective. If your institution quickly needs access to more resources, it can scale quickly in the cloud. Conversely, if it needs to downscale or reduce resources, it can do so just as easily. Because of this scalability, the cloud's elasticity is often compared to that of a rubber band.

Q: OK, sounds good? What does it mean for me, as a teacher?

A: Cloud-delivered services are about moving services out of the school and putting it into a secure, shared location where you can access it as and when you need it. For a school or college cloud-based services and applications reduce infrastructure and IT costs. But for a teacher, they facilitate fundamental developments in pedagogy. 

As a teacher, you probably don’t care about backup, or disaster recovery, or that Canvas is built open API (although that’s pretty great) - you care that the cloud means anytime, anyplace anywhere learning - helping students and teachers learn as they live. Cloud services increase accessibility, enable collaboration, and fundamentally allow schools more flexibility from teachers and students to work the way they live - in a cross platform, highly dynamic and immersive environment.

Q: And as a student?

A: Students can benefit from a much more flexible working environment, using cloud services. They can access information, work from any device, at any time and collaborate with peers. At Canvas, we believe that ultimately, student success is driven by empowerment. The best educators, as much as is feasible, put choice in students’ hands - empowering them to consume material and learn in the way that suits them best. The cloud is a vital proponent of this way of working

Q: So, the cloud means mobile working, right?

A: The cloud means the ability to work anywhere and at any time - but of course mobile is a big part of what makes it appealing. The resources of various clouds and network technologies are moving the industry toward unrestricted functionality, storage, and mobility  - making teaching and learning a truly dynamic experience. Sounds good, right?

Q: But what different cloud options are open to me?

A: Cloud computing comes in three forms: public clouds, private clouds, and hybrids clouds. Depending on the type of data you're working with, you'll want to compare public, private, and hybrid clouds in terms of the different levels of security and management required.

A public cloud is basically the Internet. Service providers use the internet to make resources, such as applications (also known as Software-as-a-service) and storage, available to the general public, or on a ‘public cloud. 

Private clouds are data centre architectures owned by a single company that provides flexibility, scalability, provisioning, automation and monitoring.  The goal of a private cloud is not to sell “as-a-service” offerings to external customers but instead to gain the benefits of cloud architecture without giving up the control of maintaining your own data centre.

By using a Hybrid approach, companies can maintain control of an internally managed private cloud while relying on the public cloud as needed.  For instance during peak periods individual applications, or portions of applications can be migrated to the public cloud.  This will also be beneficial during predictable outages: such as scheduled maintenance windows, rolling brown/blackouts.

Q: That’s a lot of choice. How do I decide between public, private and hybrid cloud solutions - and managed services or cloud native solutions?

A: Before making any decisions, we encourage institutions to understand the difference between services that are built for the cloud — cloud-native— as opposed to managed services; products that are simply hosted in the cloud.

Of course, managed services are appealing to many - partnership with an established, safe (and often large) vendor is appealing. Costs are often predictable, tech developments appear to be future-proofed and a robust network infrastructure with 24/7 management mitigates risks of downtime or failure.

But true cloud-native products, like Canvas, offer an alternative route to success. For us, cloud native, is not merely a buzzword; it’s how you know whether a programme has been designed specifically for a cloud computing architecture; or has cloud features. And in short, whether it can take full advantage of the benefits the cloud offers. 

The big draws of being cloud native include auto-provisioning: automatically provisioning environments as your needs grow, auto-scaling: tracking the various components of your application and releasing and pulling resources automatically where appropriate - and auto-redundancy. Cloud-native apps and services are inherently resilient to failure. In the event of an issue, app processing instantly moves to another server or data center automatically and seamlessly.

Another key benefit to cloud native solutions lies in agility. For one constant price, our customers get quicker access to new capabilities  - and customers can easily expand usage to other users, groups and organisations.  We believe that the benefits of operating on a multi-tenant system are also significant. First, a system designed to equally support all customers, naturally leads to continuous improvements and developments. A problem incurred by one customer leads to a quick resolution that benefits everyone who uses the system - and prevents problems from affecting other customers. So, with cloud native products like Canvas - in essence, institutions can get enterprise-class support whatever their size.

Another benefit of a public cloud is “high availability,” - with no single point of failure. In a managed services or an in-house, on-premise model, you would need to duplicate – at a minimum – every feature of your infrastructure to achieve high availability. For all but the biggest organisations, this simply isn’t possible. In addition, a public cloud environment will include data management technology that is far beyond the average school’s budget, but which can be provided cost effectively in a public cloud.

Q: What sort of cost savings do I get from the cloud?

A: For many educators, budgeting capital expenses for additional hardware is reactive rather than planned. But the cloud is different. Recurring operational expenses, in most cases consistent monthly charges - can be helpful in better managing the budgeting process. Some people estimate that the savings incurred by migrating to the cloud could be as great as 70% over a 10-year period.

Reduced maintenance costs are attractive to many. When you run your own servers, the overall costs of maintenance and management can go up - leading to unwanted and unplanned expenditures. But, in the world of cloud everything you need can be provided by your cloud partner - just like utility services -  for nominal costs. 

And of course, the cloud consumes less power and is more efficient than having an in-house IT set up. Better hardware utilization results in more efficient use of power. If you run your own data centre, your servers may not be utilized fully and that may unfortunately add to the bottom line. Whereas, cloud ensures complete hardware utilization - charging you less for the systems used.

Lastly, moving to cloud is an inexpensive way to deal with redundant requirements. Typical clouds reside in several data centres and replicate your data for resiliency. So, operations would be up and running in no time should a problem arise, such as system failure or disasters like fire and flood.

Q: OK, I’m in. Now for the guarantees - how do I make sure the service will work as I need it to?

A: Put simply, your SLA serves as a warranty for cloud computing - so getting it right will be vital. It’s a living document, and should be updated throughout your engagement with a cloud services provider - but initially it creates a strong set of ground rules and helps you plan for the service you need. It helps protect the stability of the service, protect the assets of your institution and minimise the expense and minimise risks.. 

But, even though its importance is clear, but still there is confusion how to develop an effective SLA. For us, the starting point is to create a list of important criteria - essentially what matters most to you.

An initial list may include:

-Availability (99.99% during work days is becoming increasingly expected)

-Performance (maximum response times)

-Security / privacy of the data (encrypting all stored and transmitted data)

-Disaster Recovery expectations (and commitment from a provider)

-Location of the data (consistent with local legislation)

-Access to the data (data retrievable from provider in readable format)

-Process to identify problems and resolution expectations (call center/online team)

-Change Management process (changes – updates or new services)

-Dispute mediation process (escalation process, consequences)

-An exit strategy (to enable a smooth transition to another provider)

With a core set of criteria established, the next step is to evaluate the criticality of the cloud service and associated data. Nearly any computing system can be made extremely reliable, but the costs may be prohibitively high. So, it’s important to balance your needs with a level of spending which is appropriate for you.

Q: What else should I ask cloud providers to make sure I’m getting the best out of my cloud solution?

A: The cloud is elastic, and should be able to grow with you. To ensure that you're choosing a flexible cloud provider, find out what additional storage capacity and other services can be offered over time and for what cost. If you plan to increase your staff, you'll want to make sure that you can easily add additional users to your account. 

Automated provisioning, also called self-service provisioning, is offered by some providers like Canvas. This is the ability to deploy additional services, updates or new users by using pre-defined procedures that are carried out electronically without requiring human intervention. This means no downtime - and the peace of mind that comes with an always-on service which is managed for you.

Be sure, too, that your security concerns are properly addressed. There are major differences among cloud providers in their approach to security and their use of security technologies, processes, and personnel. These differences can have a major impact on the availability, integrity, accessibility, privacy, and compliance of your data — and can directly impact the running of your institution. For schools, where data breaches are particularly serious, this is crucial. Ask about the location and security of the data centres and servers where your institutions’ information will be stored.

Q: Is there a risk to jobs if we move to the cloud?

A: For educators, the biggest benefit of the cloud is the ability to concentrate on the business at hand, delivering an engaging and innovative learning experience, letting the cloud service handle security, maintenance, backup and support. For IT staff, the task now is to ensure adoption - and that an institution is getting the most from the cloud service. So, it’s not about jobs being at risk, but rather that employees’ skills can be better deployed. Our mantra is that by using the cloud IT can innovate, rather than maintain - much more interesting, and sustainable.

Q: I’m going to need to answer compliance questions. So how do I audit the cloud?

A: Transitioning to the cloud is a significant shift for many organisations. So, it’s not surprising that there are serious questions about maintaining high levels of security and compliance standards.

Our experience shows has shown that ongoing communication and verification is vital to reassure educators that a cloud environment completely satisfies compliance requirements. Assurance of data location, privacy and location is, of course, crucial. 

But, compared to an on-premises environment, performing compliance activities in the cloud may actually be easier. It’s a third party providers job to provide reassurance that it can meet compliance requirements, refresh service certifications on an ongoing basis and ensure it tracks as many international standards as possible. It’s their day job - so that you can do yours; providing a more engaging and dynamic education environment.

Companies like Instructure go one step further to reassure customers. As well as being SOC compliant (an independent third-party examination that demonstrates how a company achieves key compliance), we make all of our security audit reports available for customers to check against themselves.  In addition, any institution can audit against us - and do their own penetration testing. Put simply, to reassure customers, we understand that openness is crucial.

Q: “The cloud is only relevant for technology needs”. 

A: The benefits of the cloud go well beyond the data centre, and well beyond technology. Today 56% of enterprises consider cloud to be a fundamental business differentiator that enables operational excellence and accelerated innovation - and educators are following in their steps to see these strategic and holistic benefits too.

Q: “Security concerns are a thing of the past.”

A: Security is still top of mind when it comes to cloud decisions. But it no longer automatically means going to private cloud -- as public and hybrid cloud services now offer stringent security capabilities. When you’re looking to invest in the cloud, assurance that your security needs are being met is important. So, start with the basic questions: where is data hosted, what backup is available and what disaster recovery processes are in place?

Q: “The cloud isn’t reliable”

A: Not the case. Amazon Web Services, which Canvas is built on, is seen as the most reliable public cloud - and it’s this independent validation from experts such as Gartner which reassures our customers. 

Q: “I’ll lose valuable uptime when I have to upgrade”

A: Versionless software like Canvas is always up to date with incremental improvements (but gives you the flexibility to choose when you deploy feature updates) meaning that major downtime for upgrades is a thing of the past (as is the wait for upgrades which many on-premise software users report). Auto provisioning and auto scaling means that our customers never have to reach out to us for more servers, or more storage, when they’re expecting spikes in traffic (such as at the start of a new term) it just happens, thanks to our own proprietary auto provisioning tools; Vector and Hot Tub.

Q: ‘Vendor lock-in means that I’m stuck”

A: The best way to avoid vendor lock-in is to choose your service wisely in the first place. Read the fine print of each provider’s policies, and if necessary, ask them directly how they facilitate moving customer data out of their cloud storage repository. Canvas, which is based on open APIs, and with collaboration and flexibility at its heart, is the antithesis of vendor lock in - and we’d love to see others in the industry follow the same guiding principles.