Business Management

Michael Crandell (US) - Digital Learning in the Cloud: Pearson's Challenge Part 1

At Pearson, a global publisher of educational content, one the most important business lines is selling educational software products to K-8 schools and school districts in the United States. Pearson's flagship product is called SuccessMaker, a group of software modules that helps kids develop critical skills for reading, speaking and mathematics that delivers individualized instruction programs in a fun and engaging package. The market for educational software customized to individual needs is one of the biggest growth drivers of the sector.

In 2008, the U.S. economic crisis hit school districts across the country hard. Funding for districts was either frozen or cut, a process that continues to this day. Until recently, Pearson's business model had been to work with the school IT staffs to install SuccessMaker on a server in the data center of the school or district.

Due to the economic crisis and the resulting cuts, school IT staffs felt pressure to conserve time and resources. That meant they were less willing to spend days or weeks of time setting up test or production installations of SuccessMaker. In other words, this became a real challenge for Pearson's more traditional sales and IT model. This problem also bled into the customer on-boarding process, which required several weeks to implement for each customer. The district IT staffs could no longer afford to support installations like they had in the past when they had larger teams.

After Pearson's sales teams shared this feedback from schools, the company accelerated its due diligence on hosting SuccessMaker in their own data center. But Pearson's Director of Architecture Andy West quickly realized that, due to the architecture of SuccessMaker, running a private data center for a SaaS or hosted implementation of the software would have entailed buying, deploying and managing a different server for each customer. That was unacceptable both on a CapEx and OpEx basis. West quickly realized that a cloud option where Pearson could manage many customers, each in a separate environment, was the only viable choice for a hosted deployment of SuccessMaker.

As further impetus, Pearson's software development teams could also move their processes into the cloud to make it easier for them to test code on a wider array of operating system and software environments. Setting up a physical or virtualized test server took 24 to 48 hours and required making space on hardware. This was slowing the teams down. With these factors in play, Pearson decided to make the jump to the cloud. West's IT team elected to use Amazon as its primary cloud computing provider, a choice made simpler by the fact that Amazon runs the biggest public cloud and has a long history of operating a major cloud infrastructure.

Still, West knew that running a reliable SaaS business in the cloud was far more complex than spinning up a bunch of Amazon EC2 instances, pushing code up, and standing up the software. Setting up Amazon Machine Images (AMIs) in the cloud, while less time consuming than putting a server in a rack and configuring it, is still fairly time consuming. That's because building and managing AMIs at scale requires many manual steps, creating a labor-intensive process that must be repeated for every AMI.

Likewise, each AMI needs to be maintained, backed up, and supported in a one-off fashion. Scaling that across hundreds or thousands of customers would create serious operational headaches and consume far too many man-hours. This meant for a cloud version of Pearson's software to be truly viable and advantageous, West had to explore ways to automate the configuration of cloud servers and spin up SuccessMaker instances for customers in a jiffy. Pearson also needed automation for ongoing application lifecycle management - so the company could quickly propagate changes in their application across multiple customers rather than rely on sys admins to update each customer's instance one by one. So how did Pearson address this issue and roll out a SaaS offering? With sophisticated cloud automation - I'll explain in part two of this article.

Michael Crandell is the founder and CEO of RightScale, the leader in cloud computing management



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