In recent years, advances in technology have radically altered the potential scope and scale of online education. Where once companies that provided software training had to be in the same physical location as their students, cloud-based training means students can learn from anywhere with an internet connection.
Providers of online training are generally faced with two broad cloud options when deciding how to deliver hands-on training labs for their classes. They can choose to use one of the major generic public cloud services (such as Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure) and build their own online training environment. Alternatively, they can opt for a specialist cloud service that provides an environment built specially for the needs of training organizations.
On the face of it, the solution may be immediately obvious—to opt for a specialist training environment. However, there are arguments against going for the “specialist” option and taking a more generalist route. While there are some cases where a generalist option may, in fact, be the better choice, in the majority of cases the specialist option may be the most appropriate solution for online training providers.
Here are some reasons that might lead to the choice of each approach:
- Your requirements for hands-on training are limited and straightforward
- You only need to provide a simple environment for training
- You do not need specialist training features
- You have the time and IT resources to build specialized training features yourself
- You want features designed specifically for the training and learning experience
- You have a need for specialized training features and you want to kick off your cloud-based labs as soon as possible
- Your students need to train on highly complex networks that are difficult or impossible to replicate on general cloud providers
- You want to devote your limited resources to improving your training content rather than on IT and administrative requirements
- You want a clear cost structure and built-in cost-control features such as auto-suspend that shuts down your machines automatically when not in use
Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) is a key driver behind the growth in online IT training, because it enables organizations to access infrastructure on a subscription model—from virtual desktops to virtual server farms—and use these for training end users and IT professionals.
For example, if your business provides training on how to develop custom workflows in SharePoint 2016, IaaS allows you to instantly create a virtual server with SharePoint 2016 pre-installed. Students in your class can then easily log in to the environment via the cloud and begin following your instructions. Crucially, you can design their iteration of SharePoint 2016 to work, look, and feel exactly as you want it. The student can begin using a brand-new iteration of the platform that has never been previously used or one that has been preconfigured in some form. This approach is far easier for educators. They don’t need to set up the environment every time they use it, and they don’t need to manually wipe a physical server. Instead, they have immediate access to infrastructure on demand.
A specialized training environment will provide rapid access to many features that are highly useful to both students and teachers. But what if you want to use your cloud environment for other activities besides training? You may also be justifiably concerned about the risk of moving all your training materials and business model to a relatively new form of technology.
To make this decision, here are some questions to help guide you.
A framework for decision making
- What level of interaction do you require between student and teacher?
This is an important distinction between “self-service” style online learning and more “value-added” teaching. For basic training, you can simply provide students with an “automated” walk-through. Alternatively, you might want to provide close, one-to-one training or classroom environments in which the teacher is available to answer student questions and interact closely with them.
Investing in a specialized training platform only to use it for simple walkthroughs is potentially wasteful. It might be easier to use a public cloud provider for simple, automated training. By contrast, if you want to enable interaction between students and teachers, as well as enable instructors to take control of a student’s machine, a specialized solution is really the way to go. Whether it’s the ability to answer questions and provide clarifications in real time or the option to offer advanced mentoring, a specialized solution will undoubtedly give your organization the edge.
- How complex are your training environments and how realistic do you want them to be?
With any virtual training environment, the instructor is required to virtualize their machine or farm and then replicate that environment to all the students who will be attending the class. You therefore need to be able to ensure that the solution you choose has the ability to do this rapidly and securely.
For simple, non-complex environments, a public cloud will usually be acceptable. If you are providing hands-on training on basic aspects of, say, a human resources management tool, you won’t necessarily require a specialized cloud provider. By contrast, if you need to replicate a highly complex network, such as an on-premises cybersecurity product to offer technical training to your customers, specialized providers may be the only option that lets you do so without modifying your product. This is because the large general cloud providers do not support many complex network features, thus requiring you to truncate features or re-architect your product to bring your environment to the cloud.
- What are your growth plans?
Part of the appeal of cloud-based education tools is the extent of elasticity they offer. In this regard, the fundamental question is how far you plan to grow your business. For certain companies, the aim will be to grow the number of students attending classes focused on one product or another. For other businesses, the aim will be to expand the diversity of courses they offer.
If your plan is simply to grow the number of students attending your lessons on a limited number of products, and you have IT resources available, it may be sufficient to simply build a very targeted training module in the public cloud. By contrast, if your goal is to expand the range and diversity of courses you offer and be fast off the blocks in doing so, it would probably be more appropriate to opt for a specialized education provider. This allows you to take advantage of prebuilt instructor consoles and customizable student consoles. You can also add new environment blueprints quickly and efficiently without having to reinvent the wheel each time you add a new course. By providing specialized training features out of the box, a specialized training lab provider allows you to focus your limited resources on new course content rather than on IT and administrative needs.
- What are your budgeting needs?
If you do not need specialized training features, surely general cloud providers are your less expensive option. However, if you want to have specialized training features, then you need to do a more detailed cost comparison, including the cost of your own IT resources to build, test, and maintain the specialized training features you desire.
In addition, if clear visibility into your training lab costs is important, then specialized cloud providers can offer an advantage, especially if they offer an auto-suspend feature that stops billing after no usage is detected after a preset period of time. Not only do general clouds require you manually turn off environments to avoid being charged, they also charge for additional line items that you may not have expected such as Disk IOPS, Data-Transfer, or Elastic IP addresses. Therefore, if you need a clear handle on your monthly expenses, a specialty cloud provider is more likely to be your best choice.
It is important to reiterate that you can, technically, do many of the activities outlined above using either “general” IaaS providers or specialized training solutions. However, creating a complex, highly interactive environment with a general provider will require extensive and costly development, so for businesses wanting to provide more sophisticated training without going over budget, a specialized training solution will usually be the best option.
When it comes to providing cloud-based training, specialized tools are generally the preferable option. They give instructors a great degree of flexibility, scalability, and cost effectiveness. By cutting out the requirement to build your own custom-built virtual machines for training, you save yourself hundreds of hours building a bespoke training environment in the cloud.