Clever, a fast-growing educational technology startup, provides a software service that enables schools to send updated student information to web- and mobile-learning applications at the click of a button. Based in San Francisco, the company serves 90 of the top 100 K-12 public school districts in the United States. More than 65,000 schools use Clever software to manage roster data and simplify logins, managing sensitive information including student names, contacts, and other details.
Clever has grown significantly since launching in 2012. Today, more than 850,000 teachers and four million students in the United States use Clever to log in to educational applications in the classroom. “We have grown extremely fast,” says Alex Smolen, lead security engineer for Clever. “During back-to-school weeks, Clever adds 1,000 or more schools per week, and we need a technology platform that can help us quickly scale our service to support so many new users each year.”
Clever’s core business is protecting student data. For example, all school-roster data processed by Clever is personally identifiable information (PII) and must be protected. “We’re dealing with very sensitive personal data, including student names and contact information,” says Smolen. “Part of our promise to the schools that use our service is that we will protect and secure that data.”
To fulfill that promise, the organization must help schools stay in compliance with the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), a federal law protecting the privacy of student data. “The combination of the regulatory landscape and our overall concern about student-data privacy has led us to prioritizing the security of our systems,” Smolen says. “We have an obligation under FERPA to protect data, but we go beyond those requirements because schools trust us to be the leader in this area.”
Why Amazon Web Services
In order to meet its scalability and security needs, Clever chose to launch its service on the Amazon Web Services (AWS) Cloud. “The cloud in general is necessary to support our growth and agility needs, and AWS in particular provides us flexibility unique to education and student-data needs,” Smolen says. “That’s why we chose—and continue to use—AWS.”
Clever runs its service on hundreds of Amazon Elastic Compute Cloud (Amazon EC2) instances, with Amazon Relational Database Service (Amazon RDS) as its primary database. The company uses Amazon Elastic Block Store (Amazon EBS) for persistent block-level storage for its Amazon EC2 instances.
To ensure strong data security and meet compliance requirements, Clever makes extensive use of AWS security services. The organization uses AWS Identity and Access Management (IAM) to control identity access and access to AWS services. The company also uses AWS Certificate Manager to provision, manage, and deploy Sockets Layer/Transport Layer Security (SSL/TLS) certificates to secure network communications.
In addition, Clever takes advantage of Amazon EBS encryption to encrypt its EBS volumes without having to build and maintain its own encryption solution. Clever uses AWS CloudTrail and Amazon CloudWatch for security insights and automated security monitoring. Clever also addresses its compliance issues by utilizing AWS to backup and purge data.
With AWS, Clever can scale to meet its fast pace of growth, including implementing its services in nearly half of all K-12 schools in the United States in the three years since its launch. The organization can also easily scale its platform to automatically meet seasonal usage. “When students go back to school in the fall, we see a huge spike in data transfers on our service. It’s an especially critical time of year and the cost is high. There are only 180 instructional days in a year. Teachers can’t afford to give up an hour—let alone a day—of a child’s learning time,” says Smolen. “We need to support usage 100 percent of the time. There’s no room for compromise.”
Clever meets its needs for strong security and compliance by utilizing the extensive security capabilities of AWS. Using the combination of AWS IAM, AWS Certificate Manager, Amazon EBS encryption, and AWS CloudTrail and CloudWatch, Clever meets its promise to its customers and advances the company’s core mission: protecting and securing customer data.
Also, because Clever can take advantage of AWS for scalability, security, and compliance, the company didn’t have to build and maintain its own IT environment to support those needs. “Setting up and running our own data centers would have been very difficult and expensive,” says Smolen. “Using AWS, we can have a modern technical platform without having to build our own environment to manage everything we need. Instead of building and constantly managing a platform for scalability, agility, and security, we can focus much more of our time on developing new features for the applications we use to help schools across the country. It’s our objective to continue to raise the bar in student data privacy and security, which we can successfully achieve thanks to the solid foundation of the security capabilities in the AWS Cloud.”
“There are only 180 instructional days in a year. Teachers can’t afford to give up an hour—let alone a day—of a child’s learning time. We need to support usage 100 percent of the time. There’s no room for compromise.”
Alex Smolen, Lead Security Engineer