The climate is changing in the education market, no less than in private sector businesses. But one reseller, Salford Software, has already started thinking up practical ways to add genuine value in a world where traditional hardware and software sales may become increasingly irrelevant.
The VAR has been working alongside Bridgend College of Further Education in Wales to develop an email system and collaborative portal based on Microsoft cloud service [email protected] for its 13,000 students and 800 staff on four campuses Six thousand users already have access, and all should be live by the new year.
Salford Software’s managing director James Doggart says the Greater Manchester-based reseller has worked at 30 to 40 universities or colleges, where [email protected] is increasingly battling it out with Google Docs for national mindshare.
In education, in-house email is rapidly becoming redundant because today’s internet-savvy students generally enrol with their own email addresses, added to numerous Web 2.0 accounts and personal URLs.
The last thing they tend to want or need is yet another online communication pathway.
“We have about 16 sites where they have deployed [email protected], and that is forecast to double this year,” says Doggart. “The reason, I think, is because it is a cloud-based system with other services bolted on. Within education, it is actually free [so low risk].”
Students previously could not collaborate across the college on one system. Now they can, via services such as Microsoft Outlook Live, Microsoft Office Live Workspace, their own 25GB of SkyDrive storage, Windows Live Messenger and File Sharing.
User authentication via single sign-on is key, cutting costs and improving information security. The Microsoft service may have an edge over Google because its cloud is hosted in Europe, easing legislative compliance. Google’s uses a conceptually purer cloud, where the servers might be anywhere, says Doggart.
Email clients do not need to be fancy, just efficient and highly available, like a utility like electricity. “You are not going to get competitive advantage by having a great email system,” he points out.
Since the product itself is free, a strong value-add is required. Even that requires a rethink juicy margins will not be found in technical support for cloud solutions but only in local, flexible services. Salford focuses on services around identity integration.
“It is like when the railways were built, and the canal workers all said trains were too dangerous and travelled too fast. The traditional channel has a vested interest in the status quo,” says Doggart. “You have to be a lot more creative about what you do.”
Bridgend is already talking with Salford about future integration projects, including other applications such as SharePoint. A Microsoft, Novell, Oracle and Sun VAR, Salford offers services around those brands topped up with pieces of its own intellectual property.
“In the next three years, no educational institution will deploy its own standard email system. It will all be pushed through the cloud, and it will be Microsoft or Google,” predicts Doggart.
New way to communicate
Leighton Spurgeon, IT services manager at Bridgend College, says that this system represents a whole new way of communicating with students. “Previously, there would have been a lot of work involved for student services and marketing,” he says.
“The collaborative portal will allow us to communicate with students at the touch of a button, by who they are, what course they are on and the information they should therefore get access to eliminating paperwork and speeding up communications.”
The identity lifecycle manager that Salford Software has deployed is the key enabler between Bridgend’s information systems and portal. The initial key task of automating the creation process for student accounts in Active Directory is expected to save time and money while making staff and student communications smoother and more efficient.
“Salford Software has streamlined this process so new network accounts are created within one hour of enrolment and provide links to the virtual learning environment, as well as import timetables into the student’s accounts so they know where they should be and at what time,” says Spurgeon.
The system is set to be rolled out to all students and staff alongside a fully identity-based set-up over two to three years. Salford Software was selected for its experience of deploying [email protected] Microsoft technologies and knowledge of the further and higher education markets, says Spurgeon.
Cloud services rising
A survey conducted by virtualisation and cloud services VAR Intercept in October suggests that UK demand for cloud-based services is on the rise. The company polled 362 senior IT managers at IP Expo earlier this month, with 84 per cent of respondents indicating a belief in growth of the cloud alongside virtualisation beyond the recession.
Forty-five per cent of respondents said the main benefit of the cloud is data security. Some 52 per cent indicated they planned a move to the cloud in the near future.
Richard Gilder, chief executive of Intercept, said a flight into the cloud will help save time and money.
“It also offers on-demand scalability for data efficiency and a pay-per-use cost model. And it is easy to report expenditure and financial details similar to utility expenses,” he says.
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