Baby steps towards cloud computing

Operators of childcare centres here are going all out to make sure their IT capabilities can keep up with the boom in the childcare sector.

Take NTUC First Campus (NFC), which has more than 30 years of experience in providing early childhood care and education for example. As a cooperative under the National Trades Union Congress, it runs more than 100 childcare centres across the island.

"The demand for childcare has gone up tremendously over the past few years," said NFC's senior manager for corporate communications, Ms Mabel Loy.

"Before 2009, we had 50 centres for the longest time. That number has doubled within four years."

Four years ago, one in five children aged five to six attended childcare centres. Today, the number is one in three.

For children aged 18 months to four years, the number has risen from one in four to one in three. While in the past, organisations would buy additional servers and software licences to cope with a spike in IT needs, the advent of cloud computing means that they can simply request cloud service providers to add more computing capacity on the fly.

The cooperative did just that because it plans to open 50 more centres over the next two years. Last September, it moved its entire IT operations to a private cloud run by Japanese IT service provider Fujitsu.

Unlike shared IT resources hosted on public clouds, such as Amazon Web Services and Microsoft Azure, IT resources on private clouds are exclusive to one company.

What this means is that NFC is now able to expand its IT capacity as it opens new centres, while maintaining the privacy and security of its IT systems. "The private cloud will allow us to be agile in responding to greater demand for childcare services," said Mr Lim Chai Seng, 49, NFC's head of information technology.

"Instead of waiting six to eight weeks for new hardware to be delivered, we simply buy services from Fujitsu. We don't own anything any more," he said. Besides tapping the cloud for computing power, it runs a slew of software on its private cloud, including an attendance system that the teachers use each morning to record attendance.

Its Microsoft Exchange e-mail servers, previously managed in-house, have been migrated to its private cloud. Employees use Lync Online, a Web conferencing tool that is part of the Microsoft Office 365 productivity suite, to chat with one another and collaborate on projects.


Moving to the cloud has allowed the co-op to slash its IT expenditure by half, a result that Mr Lim says took him by surprise.

He had expected the cost savings to be much less, as not all cloud providers include disaster recovery (DR) services that usually cost more. "In our case, Fujitsu is providing DR services for us, so our data is safe when disaster strikes," he said.

To be sure, not everything was smooth sailing. There were cases of hardware failure, he said, but Fujitsu resolved them within hours, as part of its service-level agreement. While the childcare sector is more tolerant of technical glitches than, say, the financial industry, Mr Lim said any downtime is still disruptive. Still, they have contingency plans in place.

For example, if a breakdown occurs, Mr Lim said, teachers will just use pen and paper to take attendance.

AS Fujitsu is managing all of NFC's IT systems, the cooperative's four-man IT team is building new expertise in areas such as vendor management, project management and cloud computing, said Mr Lim. "They will need new skills in managing vendors, as well as to become familiar with cloud computing technologies," he said.

According to a report by cloud technology provider Parallels, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the Asia-Pacific region are catching up with their North American and European counterparts in cloud adoption.

It estimates that the Asia-Pacific SME cloud services market will reach US$10.9 billion (S$13.6 billion) this year, a 43.4 per cent increase from US$7.6 billion last year. In the United States, the SME cloud market now estimated to be worth US$18.9 billion is forecast to grow at a compound annual growth rate of 19 per cent till 2015.

Parallels' report also noted that the growth in the SME cloud market is led by so-called Infrastructure as a Service, where organisations use hosted servers, storage and network equipment on the cloud. That segment is expected to contribute US$3.7 billion to the Asia-Pacific SME cloud market this year.

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