Collaboration | Feature

Illinois Cloud Supports Networked Schools

Nearly 150 Illinois K-12 districts are getting into the cloud with the help of a statewide consortium of IT professionals.

With cloud-based computer applications all the rage right now in educational circles, districts are looking for more ways to create economies of scale that weren't possible with purchase-and-install software. In Illinois, K-12 schools have found the answer in a non-profit cloud computing consortium.

Comprising three data centers across the state, the consortium--which is free to members--offers enterprise storage and disaster recovery to member schools, which also benefit from the organization's support and services, and computing hardware and applications.

Launched in 2009 and currently serving 150 districts, IlliniCloud gives districts access to computing resources that they wouldn't ordinarily have access to and that would typically require significant financial investments and IT support to install and run.

Here, Jim Peterson, IlliniCloud's CTO and director of technology at Bloomington Public Schools District 87 in Bloomington, IL, discussed the organization's mission and current initiatives, talked about the challenges it (and its member districts) is dealing with in the cloud, and provided insights to other educational groups looking to emulate IlliniCloud's business model.

Bridget McCrea: How and why did IlliniCloud get started?

Jim Peterson: It started in 2009 as a grassroots effort to build out a community cloud by K-12 and for K-12. We looked at Illinois' K-12 districts as a whole and started to recognize opportunities to band together to create more efficiencies while also cutting costs. School budgets were being sliced. We saw cloud computing as a viable way to continue offering a high level of service to students while leveraging critical components, like disaster recovery.

McCrea: Who was involved in the early stages?

Peterson: Working with Bloomington Public Schools District 87, CDW-G helped launch the consortium and worked as a technology partner, building out the plan and bringing in the best-of-breed technology from vendors like Cisco and VMware.

McCrea: In 2009, cloud computing wasn't yet that popular in education. Do you consider yourselves pioneers?

Peterson: Quite honestly, we actually started five years before that. With 860 school districts in Illinois, we're all in the same business of trying to educate students. We're not in competition with each other, and we join forces across various projects, including the Illinois Century Network. In place since the late 1990s, the network connects schools statewide with libraries, government offices, hospitals and other organizations. Now, we're leveraging that network, which includes about 80 percent of Illinois' public schools. Our cloud resides on that network--whose members realized there had to be a way to reduce our technology costs across hundreds of schools. We've leveraged that network and its members to bring the IlliniCloud to fruition.

McCrea: How did you select the data center locations?

Peterson: We selected three of the state's "Big 20" school districts that were separated by at least 120 miles and that already had robust data centers, solid tax bases, and funding sources. We connected them through the Illinois Century Network, and started building out different services that we wanted to offer to other public schools, with an eye on providing low-cost infrastructure, shared software services and disaster recovery to schools that couldn't afford to do this on their own.

McCrea: Disaster recovery is IlliniCloud's latest offering. How is that progressing?

Peterson: We started a disaster recovery pilot in February, and just finished it on July 1. The pilot went very well. We're getting the ratios we expected, and, even better, we think the cost is going to be very acceptable to member schools. Using the service, districts download a free client onto any server or workstation and gain the ability to back up either all of their information, or specific files and data, in the cloud. On the back end, we're using data duplication technology. We can identify when districts are using similar information--which is pretty common--and use the technology to reduce our storage needs and rates. Right now, for example, we're getting over 10:1 duplication ratio. For every 100 gigabytes of information that someone uploads, we only have to store 10 gigabytes. We can then pass that cost savings directly onto the schools, which will soon pay a membership fee. (The fee will include base storage and a per-gigabyte fee for disaster recovery services when storage exceeds the base allocation included with membership.)

McCrea: When will members begin paying for IlliniCloud's services?

Peterson: We currently have about 350 school districts that are waiting for disaster recovery services. Part of the beauty of the whole cloud concept is that we don't have to charge yet because we're using excess capacity from the districts, and we can put off charges for a while. It's part of our sustainability model, to be able to make sure we are able to pay for the personnel. Right now, we are basically sending out bills to the school districts that are current customers, and planning to post the rates at a later date.

McCrea: It all sounds good, but there must be problems.

Peterson: When you're dealing with 860 school districts, everyone believes in local control. They don't want to give up control of their data or their systems. A big question that we ask a lot of our school districts is, "What were you doing 10 years ago, when you didn't even have these systems?" Now they want to run those systems separately and independently. It's a huge expense. Luckily, we've built up great trust with our co-op of schools, which work together in our "community" cloud. That trust is important because--as I said--people don't just want to hand over control to the outside world; they want to give it to someone who shares their goals and missions. Once that trust was established, we wound up with about 180 school districts that were dealing with budgetary issues and who wanted to hand over control of their services. That quickly grew to 300 schools that were waiting for our services. 

McCrea: What's in IlliniCloud's future?

Peterson: We just received a large grant from our state board that will allow us to roll out a learning performance management system application for 50 school districts in the state of Illinois. It's a data warehouse and reporting solution, and it will be in place by Sept. 30. We're also working with a number of IT vendors to create more SaaS offerings with Learn360, which allows users to store and access their videos and multimedia in the cloud. It's a good fit for school districts because it affords them unlimited bandwidth and the ability to pull up videos at a moment's notice. Finally, we're also working with FTC Publishing to create an internal YouTube application that districts can use to share videos in an environment that's secure and safe for the students.

McCrea: What would you say to educational groups that want to emulate IlliniCloud's success?

Peterson: One of the first things we did was look specifically at the needs of our K-12 districts. This is a really important step because if you are building a cloud, you'll run into vendors that want to sell you the "whole stack" of services, when in reality all you need is one or two components. Without a plan, you'll wind up overspending unnecessarily. The key is to look at what kind of computing you require, and how that technology will be managed, and then select the best-of-breed options within those categories.

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at [email protected].