Interview | Jim Peterson and Roger Grinnip: Making Cloud Computing Work in K-12

School districts searching for more information about cloud computing have come to the right place. Jim Peterson (top) and Roger Grinnip are on the cutting-edge of just such a technology approach. Jim is the chief technology officer of IlliniCloud, a non-profit cloud computing consortium for K-12 school districts in Illinois. Roger is the IT director at Champaign Unit 4 School District in Champaign, Ill.  Champaign Unit 4 is one of 150 school districts participating in IlliniCloud, a consortium of K-12 school districts in Illinois that offers cloud-based disaster recovery, Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) and Software as a Service (SaaS). When it began many years ago, they started with the idea to share hardware and software resources and save on IT costs. However, at the time, they weren’t sure how to make it a reality. Thanks to technology evolution and improvements, especially virtualization, today IlliniCloud provides the technology backbone—servers, storage, infrastructure—that helps schools manage critical functions. And they do this through cloud computing, which gives districts anywhere, anytime access to their data—as long as they have an Internet connection. Here, Jim and Roger share their experience making cloud computing work in K-12.

Victor: How are districts leveraging IlliniCloud to either access new technologies or to free up resources for additional technologies?

Roger: IlliniCloud helps the Champaign Unit 4 School District free up resources that are traditionally tied to IT, which includes money and time we spend on servers and in the data center. This has a tremendous impact. For example, we wanted to test a new software program in our district.  Under the old model, we would need to clear space or purchase new servers. Because we are members of IlliniCloud, we can test the program in the cloud. Most importantly, our stakeholders do not see a difference in program functionality, and we save expenses.

Jim: To expand on Roger’s point, IlliniCloud gives districts equal access to the technology regardless of budget size.

Victor:  How did you design the cloud – both from a services and infrastructure point of view? 

Jim: We leveraged a great partnership with CDW to select best-of-breed technologies that fit our needs. From there, CDW helped us design a proof of concept to get the project off the ground, and they provided valuable onsite consultations to help us implement the solution.

From an infrastructure standpoint, we started with three data centers that we selected based on geographic location. Because our principle service is disaster recovery, it is imperative that our primary data centers are located in different regions of the state, at least 120 miles apart, in the event that one is hit by a natural disaster.

Additionally, most Illinois school districts are connected on a common network, called the Illinois Century Network (ICN). IlliniCloud is set up so that data transmitted to our data centers never leaves the ICN, which gives districts peace of mind, as well as unlimited bandwidth between our data centers.

Victor: Is IlliniCloud any different than the cloud computing models that businesses or large districts may currently use?

Jim: Put simply, the technology is no different than what other organizations – large or small – use. What is different is that IlliniCloud was created for K-12, by K-12. Our offerings cater to the specific needs of education, which is why we are focused on disaster recovery, IaaS and SaaS. As a community cloud, these offerings can easily change depending on the services our members demand, providing flexibility that other cloud computing models may not have.

Victor: Can you walk us through traditional disaster recovery and how that changes for schools in a cloud model?

Roger: Disaster recovery is more streamlined and reliable. Before joining IlliniCloud, we backed up our data to tape in a time-consuming, manual process. With IlliniCloud, our data is backed up instantaneously each night, and the data is housed offsite in IlliniCloud’s three data centers.  As long as we have an Internet connection, we can access the data. 

Victor:  How does IlliniCloud help districts that otherwise may not be able to afford cloud services improve disaster recovery, IaaS or SaaS?

Jim:  IlliniCloud helps in different ways. As Roger already noted, the ability to pool resources and provide on-demand services gives districts tremendous flexibility. If a district wants to test new programs and software, they can use IlliniCloud’s servers without any interruption to their network. Likewise, being able to spend less time manually backing up data means man-hours saved, which can be time reinvested on our core mission – helping teachers educate students.

Victor:  How does the pay-as-you-go model impact district budgets?

Roger: Compared to the alternative, which is a major investment in cloud computing infrastructure, the pay-as-you-go model helps us better manage our IT spend. This translates to flexibility to add or decrease computing resources as our IT requirements change. Ultimately, we expect to yield significant cost savings in IlliniCloud, though we are too early in our adoption to have measured results.

Jim: Additionally, the cost of maintaining aging onsite IT infrastructure is a tremendous expense for school districts.  As district budgets continue to feel the squeeze, IT professionals will look for opportunities to delay or reduce spending while still meeting the technology needs of students, teachers and parents. Pay-as-you-go cloud technologies could very well be the solution.

Victor: What are your views on the future of cloud computing in education?  Where is IlliniCloud going? 

 Jim: Cloud computing is one of the few technologies in recent years where the benefits of adoption surpass the hype.  Quite simply, cloud computing can reshape IT as an enabler because it offers access to better technology at a lower total cost of operation.  The less a district spends on the commodity IT – the servers, data centers, power and cooling behind IT – the more it can reapply those resources and staff to the IT that really matters to the organization.  For our members, it enables them to thoughtfully reinvest IT in the classroom.

IlliniCloud will continue to adapt to the needs of our members. Today, 150 districts are members of IlliniCloud, and as the consortium continues to grow, we have plans for as many as 400 members within three years.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@VictorRivero.com 

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