The ideal cloud security solution

What do educators want and expect from the perfect cloud security solution? Nicola Yeeles explores

While colleges and universities seem to be embracing cloud solutions – especially when it comes to reducing data storage costs – schools seem more reluctant. By 2019, over two thirds of universities had moved to cloud-based email systems, with 50% also adopting cloud collaboration systems. But what makes for the ideal cloud security solution in education, and why is it so important?

Budgetary restraints

If there’s one major difference between the education sector and its counterparts, it’s the particular need for a good deal.  The ideal cloud security solution would inevitably be one of great value. Veniamin Simonov, director of product management at data protection at site recovery software company NAKIVO, says, “Education providers tend to have a limited IT budget, yet they have vast amounts of data to protect and it’s a challenge to find and implement a suitable solution. Universities and schools are cost sensitive and they are looking for products that can help them back up their data without breaking the bank.”  Nevertheless, he points out that many providers have specific academic pricing to ease the accounts of their education customers. What’s more, cloud-based systems are often cheaper than on-site systems overall.

Jose Kingsley agrees that budget is a factor.  He is head of the charity LGfL’s SuperCloud.  The charity invests in services which support the acceleration of cloud technology and provide the necessary resilience and high bandwidth schools need to embrace it.  This ultimately saves them money by moving services into a secure, shared location. But Kingsley sees that a lack of working knowledge about current IT practices may also be to blame for a certain reticence: “Educators are forever on a quest to find smarter ways to tackle their workload, meet the demands of curriculum objectives and find the right work-life balance. On top of all this, they are presented with the phrase ‘cloud technology’ and asked its purpose, along with how sustainable it is to integrate into their daily practice. For many teachers, there is an immediate reaction of fear, along with the question ‘Do we have the budget for that?’”

Size matters

While small budgets are one issue, size can also be a challenge when it comes to the staff and student body. Mick Bradley is vice president at Arcserve, a company that provides data protection, replication and recovery solutions. He says, “Education providers frequently have a large number of access points, with tens of thousands of different students and teachers accessing applications and systems from various geographical locations, with many institutions still holding a great deal of legacy software and hardware. This puts them at increased risk of ransomware attacks, as there are a higher number of points where criminals can potentially infiltrate the system. It’s hard to ensure that an entire user base of that scale can stay clear of phishing emails and to entirely avoid the threat of human error that can open the door to ransomware.”

Universities, schools and colleges therefore need watertight ransomware protection to ensure there is no risk to critical data. That’s where the cloud comes in. Bradley says, “Multi-cloud options and hybrid cloud options are extremely beneficial here, as these types of infrastructure provide adequate protection even if any one of your physical sites is compromised, as there is an offsite backup stored safely in the cloud. Using some on-premise storage ensures that your data is also protected in case your public cloud provider’s data centre experiences an outage as a result of a natural disaster or an unforeseen event.”

Richard Harley, CEO of ScholarPack, a cloud-based management information system designed specifically for schools, agrees: “Cloud-based systems are more secure as access can only be granted over an encrypted browser connection. It’s your cloud supplier’s job to keep data safe and secure. We heard of a school who lost all of their MIS data when their server room was flooded and backups failed. With a cloud-based MIS, recovering from a natural disaster would be as simple as logging in from another device.”

What’s more, updates and fixes are constantly being rolled out across cloud systems, eliminating the need to be manually applied to each organisation, and the systems themselves are always up to date. Harley comments that with cloud, “Integrations with other software are also easier to set up and don’t require any further software installed on the server. Being cloud-based means you don’t have to pay for costly repairs, maintenance and upgrades to the server or physical hardware. The economies of scale that come with cloud hosting mean up-front costs are usually smaller too because there’s no installation required.”

Stability is key

For universities in particular, the ability to manage large volumes of data securely starts with having a stable network connection to support its safe transfer. This is a very real concern for researchers, although they may not necessarily be the ones with the buying power. By way of example, a team at the University of Bristol is working on a new class of synthetic vaccinations for highly contagious diseases. To do this, they need to produce sophisticated 3D images of the target particles, only possible through fast, high-volume cloud computing. Dr. Matt Williams, research software engineer at the University of Bristol, explained to the technology charity Jisc that, “You need lots and lots of images because each image is quite fuzzy and noisy but by using very advanced reconstruction software packages to align, classify and then reconstruct, we were able to get a full 3D model of the particle at a far higher resolution than was ever available previously.”  They use ‘cluster in the cloud’ technology to recreate the images. As Williams explains, “It allows anyone with access to cloud resources to create a very familiar software environment but fully based in the cloud, making the best use of cloud facilities and cloud technologies. If we hadn’t had access to the high-speed Janet Network, I think the real constraint it would put on us is that we would have to use smaller amounts of data in our analysis, which would have resulted in a lower resolution. We wouldn’t be able to do our jobs.”

The art of planning

So, for education providers looking for the optimum security solution, are there any tips on how to get it right?  Bradley says that education providers must be realistic about the staff time needed to run security systems: “Education providers’ IT teams are often less well-staffed and under-resourced in comparison to larger corporate organisations, without the benefit of having specialist staff handling roles in cybersecurity or storage. Due to limited resources, providers will be seeking all-in-one solutions which provide cloud security.”  Meanwhile, Kingsley recommends planning.  He says, “From experience, starting with a clear end point allows schools to carefully plan those small, tangible steps on their journey to successfully utilise cloud technology and make teaching and learning more simple, effective and impactful. For successful cloud adoption, there must be a clear transformational plan in place where all stakeholders are invited to be part of the process.”  He also says that whole organisation buy-in is needed for a new cloud system to work: “Only when there is engagement on all levels can the ambition to aim high and drive adoption forward be achieved.”

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