A review of recent evolution in cloud computing and the impact of current technology trends on the schools Management Information System (MIS) sector

Today there are no longer any doubts or arguments about moving computing to the cloud. The reasons and drivers are thoroughly persuasive – simpler connection to mobiles, robust data security, lower running costs and much more. But the technology continues to evolve rapidly. The more than 50% of UK schools who are still running a non-cloud MIS want to be sure that when they upgrade to the cloud, they will get the full benefit of a platform that will stay up-to-date – rather than end up still having to wrestle with outdated technology and unsatisfactory managed services.

Many of the vendors in the schools MIS market are still catching up to cloud computing. Ten years ago, early offerings often weren’t cloud-native at all. Vendors used various workarounds to save having to re-architect their existing products, lumbering schools with outdated software and locking them into costly infrastructure contracts. Now at last vendors realize the importance of offering truly cloud-native products. But few have truly taken head-on the challenging demands imposed by the rapid evolution in cloud-native computing over the past decade. Buyers need to be wary of new workarounds adopted by slow-moving vendors who are struggling to keep up.

Indeed, many vendors have simply given up. Notable departures from the UK schools MIS market in the mid-2010s included education publishing giant Pearson and its e1 product, Tribal Synergy and primary specialist Wauton Samuel. In recent months, Advanced Computer Software pulled out of the market, leaving users of Cloud School (formerly known as Progresso) scrambling to find a replacement. The latest departure is leading educational ICT provider RM Plc. It ceased further development of its cloud-based Integris MIS, and is currently awaiting regulatory approval for its sale to a new owner, leaving a question mark over the product’s survival. Meanwhile longstanding market leader ESS SIMS, after ParentPay acquired it from Capita in 2021, scrapped five years of development of its planned cloud-native SIMS 8 release and embarked on a new plan to introduce SIMS Next Gen, which currently only offers a few ‘slices’ of functionality in pilot (its only other ‘cloud’ offering is SIMS Connected, a hosted version of its on-premise software). The result is a growing exodus of schools from ESS SIMS revealed in DfE figures, with an 18% loss of market share in the last year alone, leaving it with 55% of the market and a further significant fall expected in the next DfE report.

This paper sets out the latest developments in cloud-native computing and how they’ll help you achieve your goals. Definitions are shifting as the technology continues to evolve, but the core patterns are clear. Meanwhile, the latest capabilities in Artificial Intelligence (AI) are set to unleash a further wave of innovation. Selecting a technology platform with the flexibility to stay on track with what’s to come has never been more important.

From monoliths to composable microservices

During the past ten years, the building blocks of cloud computing have become progressively smaller and more interconnected, enabling far more resilient, scalable and flexible operation. The emergence of containerization at the infrastructure layer was particularly important in bringing forward a more composable approach to building applications.

The monolithic applications of the past were tightly coupled into a vertical stack that enforced a single user interface and a specific set of functions, all working from a dedicated database. This structure worked fine for well-defined standalone applications, but it is poorly suited for sharing data with other applications or adding new functionality that wasn’t conceived at the time the application was first created.

The trend in cloud computing has therefore been to gradually break down these monolithic applications into collections of composable microservices that work together. Known as microservices architecture, this unbundles the monolith into separate independent functions and data access, each with their own lightweight APIs, plus a separate UI layer. Each of these microservices is independently deployable and scalable, making it much easier to upgrade or enhance them independently, so long as the right overall architecture and management controls have been put in place.

The architecture also makes software development more responsive, because each component can be owned by a small team focused on a specific capability or outcome. Crucially, they continue to maintain and enhance it throughout its full operating lifecycle, not just during development.

Tiered vs Tierless

Be wary of vendors that speed up their journey to a composable architecture by preserving the old, vertically tiered structure of their applications within an API framework. For the vendor, it may be the only viable way of introducing new composable functionality alongside an existing non-cloud application stack (as in the case of ESS SIMS, for example – see appendix). But this workaround leaves in place a disjointed API infrastructure and a fragmented database landscape that lacks flexibility and scalability.

A fully tierless architecture requires further effort, but the payback is a more scalable, adaptable platform for the future. Application developers must make sure that there’s an effective orchestration layer in place to co-ordinate the various moving parts. They must also re-organize data so that, instead of leaving it in application-specific databases, it becomes part of a shared resource that can work with any application and is available for instant analysis and reporting.

Adding flexibility

The greater flexibility of a fully composable, tierless architecture helps in two ways – one immediate, the other over time. The immediate impact is that it allows a much wider set of configuration choices at implementation. When an application is made up of many different composable functions, there are many more ways in which those functions can be connected together, leading to a wider choice of process workflows and automations. Even external applications and data sources are much easier to add, provided they offer suitable APIs and data transformations.

It’s much easier to add or tweak each individual function without impacting the rest of the application, so that developers can quickly respond as new requirements emerge. Unlike the custom coding of traditional monolithic applications, these changes don’t impact the consistency of the core application, so it can continue to be upgraded and supported as the vendor brings out new releases.

This flexibility continues over time. As new technologies emerge or new operational demands appear, those new capabilities can be added as extra components without adding new layers of complexity. This is particularly useful to add new operational capabilities, but here are two very important examples from the tech landscape:

  • The separation of the user interface (UI) layer to create a ‘headless’ application makes it much easier to support multiple channels of interaction, including web apps, mobile phones, text messages, messaging apps such as Microsoft Teams, and intelligent chatbots.
  • To realize the potential of AI, organizations need a platform that provides a consistent, integrated data layer, and can connect to different AI models and resources as they emerge.

About the author

Phil Wainewright is a trusted thought leader in enterprise computing and a noted authority on cloud computing since the mid-1990s. In 2013 he co-founded the tech media website diginomica to cover the evolution of business applications in the digital era and how they are changing the enterprise. He also serves as CEO of strategic consulting group Procullux Ventures.

About Bromcom

Active in the education market since the early 1990s, Bromcom Computers Plc has been leading the technological revolution in schools and colleges by providing new and innovative ICT systems. A comprehensive web-based management information system (MIS) for schools and colleges was completed in 2010 and moved to MS Azure in 2015. Since then it has been optimised for the latest cloud computing deployment and technology platform. Bromcom was first to integrate AI within its MIS, powered by OpenAI.