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Cloud Computing | Feature

Sharing the Cloud in Illinois

Due to budget constraints, schools are often forced to use technology developed for a business environment and adapt it or “make do.” Amazon, Google, and Microsoft offer “education versions” of their cloud computing resources, but these are usually scaled-down (maybe even free) versions of their complete cloud packages, which of course carry bigger price tags.

Rather than making do, the state of Illinois has developed its own education-driven cloud. While local schools in the state have the power to make decisions and control how they deliver education, they’re also used to working cooperatively and sharing resources. Of the 800 districts in the state, most are rural and poor, so it’s impossible for each building to have the necessary hardware and user licenses necessary for adequate IT infrastructure.

According to Jason Radford, senior cloud architect for the IlliniCloud, it was four years ago when a small group of wealthier schools with excess computing capacity decided to combine emerging cloud technology with the state’s collaborative culture to “lower the barrier for a lot of technology needs that schools had and were struggling with.” Radford continued, “It’s not really about the technology, it’s the working-together part that really drives our success. It’s the trust; everyone has a stake in the organization…We have a lot of school districts [that] were easily able to volunteer time, whether to set up training, host webinars, provide professional development. The time aspect is really important, too.”

When it came to setting up the shared cloud, Radford explains, “We just had spare capacity and we retrofitted that capacity to be in a shared, multi-tenant environment. We started off with three to four school districts providing just the most basic, rudimentary things like virtual machines to recovery, everything the school district would have.”

The system started out serving K-12 schools that become members of the nonprofit co-op for an annual fee. In exchange for the investment, the school receives technology services, support and participation in the program development. Changes and improvements to the system are driven “organically” based on problems that arise and members’ requests for specific services.

Balancing Access and Security

At the start of the project, the primary focus was on providing access to data, but in addition to being immediately accessible, the cloud needed to be secure to comply with federal privacy laws.

“School districts don’t really have the means a typical enterprise would. But their data and their operations are just as important,” Radford said. And that means backup is absolutely crucial. Radford and his team set out “to get that off-site, somewhere they knew was extremely economical and they knew they count on in the event that something happened. If [they] had a tornado come through, they’d have their data in the cloud. It was more of a warm backup, so that if they did need to spin up operations, they knew we were a phone call away.”

Letting Schools and Students Choose

Because the IlliniCloud is an education-based resource, the needs of schools drive all decisions. Different schools use different devices at different grade levels, which means varying data storage needs. And, for example, there is no need to shoehorn an infrastructure built for the Android operating system to fit a Mac-only school.

“Our governing mantra that I instill in everyone is, ‘We’re standards-based vendor control.’ We have to be able to accommodate the districts for any device choice, whether it be a Chromebook, an Android device, or an Apple device,” Radford said. “We really are about choice, to let the school pick the device and to find the common denominators in delivering our services so that we fit in with that.

Freedom of choice also applies to where students can do their work. Radford explained that, “A lot of local school districts rely on local outreach programs from their city, from local businesses where students might have remote labs. They might have libraries or boys' clubs where they need access to their information on a device that they might be able to have for an hour or two at a time. We want to address that to make sure that all of the curriculum and that learning experience is bolted to their online identity and account—and not to a specific device.”

So the IlliniCloud developed its own secure access for students, teachers, and administrators to enter cloud storage from any device at any time, via a Dropbox-style entry point. And the cloud is large enough to accommodate an “archive forever” infrastructure that businesses don’t typically follow. This means that teachers retain access to curriculum and student data, while students can always access projects that might be part of an e-portfolio.

Next Steps

What Radford called “unstructured data” is doubling and tripling in some districts every year as technology skills are added to education requirements. To allow the cloud to keep growing, every member pays a sustainability fee to make sure money is available for infrastructure. Radford said that grants from the state help cover costs for specific initiatives or implementing an expansion for an existing program. “ISBE, the Illinois State Board of Education, has been really one of our biggest champions in that they see the change and the positive outcomes that have happened versus the top-down mandates. They utilize us as a vehicle to make changes,” he said. “They’ll invest in our services.”

And that also means supporting innovation. “We’re more of a fusion between VMwarevirtualization of desktops and an Amazon to where all of the service that we, do we make sure that they have to be sustainable and economical in more of an OPX (Open Programming Extension) model,” Radford said. “In the beginning we (didn’t) have millions of dollars in licensing, millions of dollars in hardware. So we have to invest in an architecture that provides sustainability and reliability, but we have to do it in a very non-enterprise manner.”

The model has proven to be a tremendous success. Membership is growing substantially now that the IlliniCloud is open to higher-education institutions, nonprofit organizations, and governments. For-profit entities are prohibited. With more than 500 K-12 districts in eight states as well as a growing number of small colleges and state governments part of the cloud, Radford doesn’t know the total membership count because it grows every day. Applications are coming in from all over the United States, Radford cautioned schools to choose their cloud resources wisely.

“We’re very new into this cloud and outsourced service model,” he said. “Sometimes the best practices and the products that are touted this year could drastically change. Just take advantage, ride the wave. Pick services that look like they can add value. Over the coming decade you’re going to see some very good opportunities to deliver some really good business value in your IT shop to show that you’re not only looking to cut costs, but also looking to become more agile and impact your business.”

About the Author

Margo Pierce is a Cincinnati-based freelance writer.

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