North versus South. Rural versus urban. Add to those delineations now, as schools and government agencies across the U.S. move to the cloud, Google versus Microsoft.

On the surface, at least, it's a public relations battle. Google announces one state or school district has adopted its cloud offerings; and then it's Microsoft's turn to respond with a new list of cloud clients. Google touts 10 million Apps for Education users. Microsoft touts 15 million for its Live@edu.

Oregon Goes Google, Portland Public Schools Goes Microsoft

In this light, today's announcement by Microsoft seems like a veritable coup. On the list of the 16 new cloud computing agreements it has signed is the Portland Public Schools, the largest school district in the state of Oregon with more than 46,000 students. Oregon, if you recall, was the first state to "go Google" in April 2010.

Of course, "going Google" doesn't mean that - presto, change-o - every student, teacher, and administrator in a school, district, or state are suddenly up and running on Google Apps for Education or even that they will be someday. Rather, the Oregon Department of Education now gives schools and districts the option to pursue their own IT solutions and doesn't force them to go with one particular contractor.

A Difficult Choice, A Difficult Move

Nick Jwayad, chief information officer at Portland Public Schools said that the decision to move to Microsoft's Live@edu "wasn't easy by any stretch." He said the district weighed its options carefully, listing the things he said made Microsoft's service more appealing: security, support and synergy.

To be clear, this isn't an abandonment of Google Apps for Edu. The school district is moving away from an on-premise Novell environment towards what Jwayad describes as a "Microsoft-centric" infrastructure. Microsoft, he told me, was the "product-of-choice," as, among other things, the Portland Public Schools plans to provision email accounts to students for the first time.

When Jwayad described to me of the school district's decision to "go Microsoft," he made it sound like a technological one. That's not too surprising. He's the CIO, after all. And as I learned when I attended a K-12 summit for Oregon school district tech coordinators, sponsored by Google, the challenges around moving schools, students, teachers, administrators to the cloud - whether it's Google's or Microsoft's - can be pretty daunting. Today's announcement from Portland Public Schools will mean that the district will have migrated to Live@edu by the beginning of the 2011-12 academic year.

The challenges for school districts migrating to the cloud include the infrastructure. There are the policies (COPPA and FERPA). There are the parents. There are the permissions. And of course, there are the teachers and students, who now not only want email (let's pretend, for the sake of argument here that the kids want email) but demand a whole suite of online products and services where they can easily communicate and collaborate - in the classroom and at home.

It's not an easy move nor necessarily a cheap move (despite the promises of eventual cost savings). It may be a technological move ("to the cloud!"). And as Paul Nelson, an ed-tech specialist for Oregon's Northwest Regional ESD (a Google district), once told me, it's a cultural move, one requiring district, administrator, and teacher buy-in. In the face of all these challenges - despite the PR from Microsoft and from Google - migration to the cloud is a slow move for most schools.

Photo credits: Flickr user Hans Splinter