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Schools turn to storage SaaS for savings, security

Two school districts turn to storage SaaS to offer online classrooms and boost security on school computer systems for about $1 per student.

Administrators for school districts in California and Arizona say that storage Software as a Service (SaaS) from Networld Solutions Inc. has let them support online classrooms and workspaces for thousands of students at a cost of about $1 per student.

The service, called School Web Lockers, allows schools to offer theoretically unlimited storage capacity to students and teachers online. The file storage is accessible via a secure Web site, and the service also offers security and safety measures for students, such as capacity quotas for students, blocked file types, parental sign-in and the ability for teachers and school administrators to monitor what students are storing. The administrators said the cost of the service is far less than building their own IT storage networks.

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The service was created in 2004 when Networld worked with California's Riverside Unified School District (RUSD), located just east of Los Angeles. RUSD tested the service and developed its Web interface with Networld's engineers over the next several years and has been rolling it out to its 45 schools and 44,000 students. An estimated 60% of the district's population is using the service so far.

Another customer is Arizona's Santa Cruz Valley Unified School District, which rolled out the service over the most recent winter break to 2,000 students at Rio Rico High School.

The two school districts have different goals for the service, but IT administrators for both said that cost was the chief factor in choosing to outsource storage.

Jay McPhail, coordinator of instructional technology for RUSD, said his district is working toward a paperless, online classroom. Some 1,900 teachers have been trained on using the service and are integrating it voluntarily into their classrooms right now, but further down the line the district expects to formally train teachers to plan curriculum using online storage.

RUSD also has an on-site storage area network (SAN) for administrative files in the superintendent's office. One full-time engineer runs the internal 15 TB SAN, which cost about $50,000. "The School Web Lockers service costs a fraction of what it would cost to offer just the storage on-site, let alone the administration, networking and security that would have to go along with it," McPhail said.

Rio Rico's technology coordinator Stephen Saint-Coeur said his goal was to offer students storage space as an alternative to portable storage devices, such as USB drives, which were causing security problems on school networks.

"I wouldn't even consider it," answered Saint-Coeur when asked about the comparative cost of offering online storage internally. "In addition to buying the storage, we'd have to do programming, allow our students access through the Web, which would give them access to the network at that point. No, it has to be done by someone with the manpower and on a Web site separate from our own domain."

At the time RUSD began working with Networld, there weren't many competitors in the online storage space, and the school district was looking for a tailored service specifically for education. Saint-Coeur, who did his evaluation last year, had other choices, such as Pearson Education Inc.'s PowerSchool (formerly Apple) and Google's Apps for Education.

"[PowerSchool] would've cost $50,000 to $60,000, and it wanted to replace our student information systems and a lot of other things we didn't need. We just wanted to give our students a better option for storage," he said. Google Apps, meanwhile, is intended for higher education and doesn't have enough monitoring and safeguards for K-12 students, according to Saint-Coeur. "There'd be no way with Google Apps to see what the kids are storing," he said. "There's no way for an administrator or teacher to log in to their accounts."

However, Saint-Coeur said he hoped for Google-like features to be added to the service soon. "I'd like to see them offer some basic word processing and spreadsheet programs, like Google does, so that students can actually do their work online, rather than just storing it there," he said.

According to Darryl Vidal, vice president of School Web Lockers, "We have found that our file-sharing capabilities make it easy for users to upload and download shared documents and then make edits without the need for an integrated application. That said, we always take customer requests into consideration."

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