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Microsoft Azure and GEMS Education

Top K-12 private education provider GEMS Education embarks on technology disruption journey using Azure

Thanks to sustained investments in technology & continuous teacher training, GEMS Education schools were be to adapt to the sudden shift online learning triggered by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Founded in 1959, GEMS Education has become one of the world’s most prominent K-12 private school providers, running leading international independent schools across 10 countries. The company’s mission—to put a quality education within the reach of every learner—guides operations at GEMS’ 66 schools across the Middle East, North Africa, and South Asia regions, building the skills and knowledge of approximately 174,000 students from more than 175 countries.

As part of its technology disruption journey, GEMS Education has developed its own suite of IP products and solutions, including Phoenix RISE, an end-to-end school management platform; Classroom, an advanced learning management system; HSE, a health and safety and child safeguarding system; Connect, an enterprise mobility platform; Pulse, an education customer relationship management (CRM) system; GEMS Garage, a digital repurposing platform; AppStore, providing a unified view of education apps; and GEMS Alumni, a platform to connect alumni and students. The successful execution of FY18-20 initiatives has resulted in significant efficiency increases (automated 13K+ man-days), customer experience enhancements, huge cost optimization, standardization, technology consolidation, control improvements and secured data and IT assets.

Ensuring all its students have reliable access to educational content is no small feat—particularly with the massive and abrupt shift to online learning triggered by the COVID-19 health crisis. While most schools regionally and across the globe struggled and took months to prepare for the new normal, GEMS Education started from a position of strength due to sustained investments in technology and continuous training provided to its teachers. Indeed, every day as morning dawns on homes across the Middle East, North Africa, and Far East, thousands of GEMS students sign in to the education platform for their lessons. Yet, managing that sudden demand surge and operating a complex multitenant environment are challenges the education giant was able to mitigate, thanks to Microsoft Azure.

Scaling flexibly to meet demand

“You can imagine the early morning digital onslaught we experience, when something like 50,000 or 60,000 students suddenly sign in to the environment for attendance between seven or seven-thirty in the morning,” says Shabeer Mohammed, Head of Technology, GEMS Education. “We needed an environment powerful and flexible enough to manage that load. Sure, we could have purchased any number of servers and put them in our datacenter and then introduced some caching mechanism. But that would have meant spending an hour every morning monitoring and provisioning. Right now, Azure gives us the flexibility of using an environment which is highly adaptable—using Load Balancer or Application Gateway, for example—it can grow and shrink, depending on traffic flows, and we pay for what we use. This is very helpful to manage the morning spike—especially since system loads begin to ease by, say, eight o’clock. It made sense to use the Azure [cloud] platform to do it right.”

Enabling comprehensive technology

“Supporting more than 230,000 students, teachers, parents, and administrative staff, we are probably one of the world’s biggest Microsoft users within the education industry,” Shabeer observes. “At any given time, we probably have a span of active students covering half the globe. Imagine starting from Africa and then moving through Egypt, Qatar, and the UAE, and then going all the way to Malaysia and India. To manage everything, our central datacenter is hosted in the UAE. Then, we have multiple tenants—for students, teachers, and administrative staff. It’s a complex environment, which is why we chose to run both our School Management System and Learning Management System on Azure. It has cloud regions in the UAE, which can host our datacenters, helping us minimize latency concerns. Operations like ours require high performance on a massive scale. And that demands the right technology. We found it with Azure.”

“Using Microsoft tools has been very, very helpful for us,” notes Vishal Mehta, VP - Applications at GEMS Education. “We predominantly use the Microsoft stack, covering everything from authentication on Microsoft Azure AD to running our ERP systems. We also use Microsoft Dynamics 365. Moving our IP suite of products to Azure has opened many doors for us when it comes to scalability, cost savings, and agility. Having everything in one place and within one cloud environment also helps us with our data journey and analytics. We use Power BI to create dashboards based on the data we possess, across both our school management system and learning management system. These dashboards are easily accessible and intended for everyone, be it our CEO or our account officers. We get easy, self-service access to decision-ready information.”

Better defenses

Azure has also been instrumental in allowing GEMS Education to improve its security capabilities. Products like Azure Security Center are heavily integrated into the technology stack. Moreover, the fact that security is integrated with Azure Machine Learning and AI algorithms allows tailored information on recommendations that are specific to GEMS Education’s technology landscape.

Looking ahead, GEMS Education plans to take advantage of Azure capabilities to develop exciting and groundbreaking EdTech initiatives, including but not limited to establishing advanced online tutoring platforms, developing intelligent AI-driven virtual avatars for enhanced teaching and learning outcomes, building an advanced adaptive learning platform driven by cognitive AI solutions, introducing a versatile mixed reality-based platform for an immersive learning experience, and creating a unified blockchain-based credentialing system.

“With a continued focus on developing technological breakthroughs in EdTech products and service offerings, which will shape the future of education, we are now entering the next phase of our IP journey, where we plan to continue to strengthen our relationship with Microsoft as a trusted cloud service partner,” concludes Krishnan Gopi, Group Chief Disruption Officer at GEMS Education.

"With a continued focus on developing technological breakthroughs in EdTech products and service offerings, which will shape the future of education, we are now entering the next phase of our IP journey, where we plan to continue to strengthen our relationship with Microsoft as a trusted cloud service partner."
Krishnan Gopi: Group Chief Disruption Officer - GEMS Education