How Hybrid and Private Clouds Solve Problems for Schools with Limited Connectivity

The use of digital content is an exciting concept for schools in developing communities. Schools all over the world, especially those in developing countries, are adopting videos, ebooks, and interactive software to supplement the learning experience. However, schools with limited Internet (including some access to the Internet but sporadic and/or low bandwidth) face unique challenges. They cannot access content online consistently. Additionally, if the content is hosted locally on one’s own computer, how does this content get updated and made available to all in low bandwidth situations?
These problems have existed for a long time. The typical approach is to install a server somewhere within the school and use it to host content. Often these are either expensive Windows servers or complicated-to-maintain Linux servers. On top of that, there’s still the issue of getting these servers updated content. It’s typically an inefficient or non-intuitive process.
As one of Inveneo’s Project Engineers I’ve experienced these problems first hand while working in Tanzania. I was hoping there would be a better way to handle these issues and I believe there is: utilizing the private cloud or the hybrid cloud.
Public cloud systems such as Amazon Web Services, Dropbox, Google Drive, and so forth are great for scalability and maintenance because you do not host them. You don’t have to run your own server to get these services to work. By using the Private Cloud you get to own the infrastructure (unlike Amazon or Dropbox). That means you are responsible for the equipment and maintenance. This may sound complicated, but there are devices out that make this very simple and can be reasonably cost effective, particularly when considering my favorite device families to use – Synology DiskStations. Synology DiskStations have been marketed widely towards small, medium, and large business as well as home users as a NAS (network attached storage) solution that offers file backup and fault protection (RAID) solutions. Even better, it’s set up to flourish in limited connectivity scenarios. Synology DiskStations are remarkably easy to set up (you don’t use a command line once), and it opens the door to many options that schools in developing communities can utilize.
Highlights of some of the most useful features for ICT4E:
1) Syncing of Content
Dropbox has gained a lot of fame by syncing content from a folder on a computer to their servers. This is great if you have multiple devices and want access to the same content. Synology has actually borrowed this idea, and you can set up your own private file sync locally! For example, if you have 50 laptops (or even tablets) in a school and you want to distribute a new video to each of the devices, you can simply add it to your Synology. It will automatically get downloaded and distributed to all the machines that have the Synology Cloud Station client installed.
Now consider the situation where the new content that you’d want to distribute is a video produced by someone else not near the school. You can simply link up the Synology unit to a Dropbox or Google Drive account and it will download over time in the background while connectivity is available. Once the content has been downloaded, it will then sync to all the devices locally (just like before).
2) A High Level of Scalability
If you’re working across a number of schools and each school wishes to have the same content made available, you can simply configure the DiskStations to be able to sync with one another.
Synology also has a wide variety of DiskStation devices that have different hardware specifications that are able to meet the needs of most environments. These range from simple and cost-effective ARM-based processors with limited memory to powerful Intel Xeon processors that carry up to 8GB of memory.
3) Easy Remote Management
With DiskStation Manager 5.0+, it’s possible to set up outside access to the units utilizing Synology’s QuickConnect feature and their Cloud Station Server client. There aren’t any complicated port-forwarding router configurations. If you desire a more advanced setup, you can choose to set up your Synology as a VPN server. They even provide free DDNS services.
4) An “App Store”…for Servers?
These devices have a growing list of applications that you can simply login to the device and select for a one-click install. Some applications include Moodle, Asterisk (for VoIP), antivirus software, and WordPress. See the full list here.
5) No Monthly Fees
A lot of cloud services have a monthly or annual payment business model. This is not the case for the services provided by Synology.
These devices are incredibly exciting, and I am really impressed with the direction that Synology has taken. The user interface is incredibly easy to navigate when comparing it to products that can do similar things. They’ve found a way to make servers simple without losing a lot of functionality.
The most similar products to the Synology DiskStation family are from QNAP, which I’ve heard very good things about as well, but I had some complaints about the UI.
For more information on the Synology DiskStation please visit the Synology website.