Illinois schools create cloud cooperative to extend technology resources

Statewide initiative leverages shared data center resources so individual schools can focus technology investments more on classroom curriculum.

An Illinois experiment to share technology services across 150 K-12 school districts offers a glimpse into the potential of cloud computing to transform education.

The initiative should be of interest to states and counties seeking to reign in technology budgets without shutting down innovative new curriculum development. I'm guessing that's pretty much EVERY public school district in the United States, right? The idea is that if school districts can use IlliniCloud to help cut costs for things like new servers and storage, schools will have more money to focus on applications and technologies specifically intended to improve school curriculum.

At the center of the effort is IlliniCloud, a non-profit consortium that worked with technology services provider CDW, to put the power of several school's existing data center investment to work across districts that didn't have the same ability to invest in this capacity. "This is a push for equity across the state created by K-12 instructors for K-12 schools," said John Pellettiere, director for K-12 education for CDW. "Funding is being cut, but we really can't cut services to the classroom. In particular, this could help provide equity to rural schools."

Central to the consortium's ability to offer these services is the statewide investment that Illinois has made in Internet connectivity and bandwidth. In short, schools don't need to pay for bandwidth, which makes using cloud services all the more appealing, said Jim Peterson, chief technology officer for IlliniCloud. Currently, 150 out of Illinois' 850 school districts are testing out IlliniCloud services.

Peterson is director of technology at Bloomington Public Schools District 87, which is one of three Illinois schools that contributed data center and infrastructure resources to IlliniCloud.

He said the consortium plans to start by providing disaster recovery and backup services to public and private schools in Illinois. Over time, it will serve up other applications. The consortium just started charging for its services at the beginning of July after testing the concept for free for approximately two years. "It is like selling ice water in the desert," Peterson said.

One school that has jumped on board is Champaign Unit 4 School District in Champaign. Said Roger Grinnip, IT director for the school district:

"Disaster recovery is a huge focus and concern for us, but like many organizations, implementing a new cost-effective solution was simply out of our reach. IlliniCloud offered us a comprehensive, off-site disaster recovery solon at a fraction of the cost of an upgrade. We have peace of mind knowing that if our network goes down, our information is saved and available."

CDW was involved in reinforcing the infrastructure being used by IlliniCloud with an eye to reliability and security. Among the technologies being used by the consortium are:

  • Cisco Unified Computing System
  • VMware vSphere virtualization software
  • Fibre Channel storage arrays and equipment
  • F5 load-balancing technologies
  • Juniper Networks 10-gigabit Ethernet networking technology

Right now, IlliniCloud is focused strictly on serving the state of Illinois, but the consortium hopes to team up with organizations from other states that might want to emulate its model. California and Kentucky are among those states that have raised their hands first for more information, Peterson said.

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