Cloud Computing in Action: Which Model is Right for You?

Ed tech leaders match cloud service models to data and application needs.

by / June 2, 2016 0

This article originally appeared in The Cloud Goes to School (sponsored).

School districts and universities have more options than ever before when deciding where their data and applications should live. The location of physical computing infrastructure is becoming less relevant as bandwidth increases and vendors expand cloud-based offerings.

Depending on the type of application and the sensitivity of the data, education institutions are adopting a mix of private clouds, where services are provided to a single organization, and public clouds, which are operated by commercial providers to serve multiple customers. In addition, they’re mixing cloud-based and on-site resources to create hybrid environments.

Security requirements for the application and the data it holds are key factors in deciding on a cloud model. Education institutions may choose a private cloud for higher-security applications and select a public cloud for lower-security applications such as email. Hybrid clouds allow institutions to keep multiple applications in different places or combine the advantages of public and private clouds to serve one application.

Here’s a look at some of the models in action.

Private Cloud

In 2008, concerns about protecting student data drove a trio of Illinois school districts in Murphysboro, Bloomington and DeKalb to build a private cloud — known as the IlliniCloud — to serve themselves and a growing number of other districts in the state.

Initially offering disaster recovery, the consortium later expanded its offerings by providing infrastructure- as-a-service. Next, the group created a data portal where teachers could see dashboards with data from multiple systems. Finally, it launched federated identity solutions with the help of higher education leaders.

The latter offering stems from the IlliniCloud’s participation in the Internet2 community’s Quilt InCommon K-14 Identity Federation Pilots. For three years, universities helped state research and education network providers identify users once and then allow them to use their credentials across multiple systems. These pilots led to collaborations between IlliniCloud and other state network providers that continue today.

Initial funding for the IlliniCloud came from the three founding districts, along with federal grants and state and local dollars. Now the consortium generates revenue by charging districts for services they use and offering co-op memberships that vary in price depending on a district’s student population. Free bandwidth from the Illinois Century Network — a statewide broadband network for government, education and health care — helps keep costs low.

The IlliniCloud provides more than 500 districts inside and outside the state with a safe place to house data, recover it if disaster strikes and access infrastructure they couldn’t afford without the group’s economies of scale. The founding school districts initially hosted the IlliniCloud from their data centers, but moved the main data center into a commercial facility in 2014.

Member institutions own and operate the data, identity and portal tools, and determine the standards.This way, they can protect student data, keep tabs on its location and answer parents’ questions about how the information is used.

“Our job is to make sure that we clearly know where every piece of data and identity goes for every single student that’s under our care,” says Jim Peterson, technology director at the Bloomington district and CEO of IlliniCloud.

The founding districts’ superintendents meet annually and follow the guidance of their technology leaders. An advisory board composed of representatives from the state’s learning technology centers,  public school districts and private schools also provides guidance.

Public Cloud

The eight institutions in the Nevada System of Higher Education (NSHE) are halfway through iNtegrate 2  — a project designed to standardize business processes, share resources across their campuses and collect cleaner data. The project includes moving finance, human resources and payroll systems to a cloud-based service hosted by a commercial provider. More than 11,000 employees will use the system, which is scheduled to be complete in spring 2017.

Steven Zink, vice chancellor of information technology at NSHE, says the commercial cloud platform is updated twice a year, ensuring the university system has up-to-date functionality. Additionally, NSHE no longer needs to manage and maintain hardware and software, and it’s the vendor’s responsibility to scale up for periods of high user demand.

The move also is helping the university system centralize and standardize data reporting. With common data definitions, each institution can report student graduation rates the same way.

This reporting process is critical because Nevada awards a percentage of state funding based on universities’ graduation rates.

Nevada’s adoption of commercial cloud services raised security concerns, Zink says. But major cloud vendors have a strong reputation for safeguarding client data, while individual corporations and education institutions have been frequent victims of cyberattacks.

“I don’t know of any higher education institution that can provide the level of constant 24/7 security where you have essentially that much dedicated staff time to making a secure physical and virtual computing environment,” he says.

Hybrid Cloud

San Diego schools and the County Office of Education are poised to move some services from the private cloud to the public cloud. They’ll decide on a case-by-case basis where each service will live to ensure they meet data security requirements, says John Cusack, network services manager for the San Diego County Office of Education, which provides services to 42 school districts, 119 charter schools and 5 community college districts in the county.

Districts and teachers are becoming more comfortable with public cloud services, thanks to popular offerings such as Microsoft’s Office 365, Google Apps for Education and the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium’s hosted testing service, Cusack says. That’s prompting the San Diego Office of Education to shut down some of its existing private cloud services in favor of public cloud offerings. For instance, the county is retiring a private cloud service that allows school districts to access files and other resources from any location.

“We’re just finding that the overhead of managing the private cloud aspect is no longer giving us the value that we were getting before,” Cusack says.

Ultimately, the county expects to operate a mix of on-site, private cloud and public cloud services — with hosting decisions based on factors such as the sensitivity of the data involved and the nature and terms of the service offering. That means student and faculty documents are definitely moving out of the county’s data center, Cusack says, and SIS data is probably staying put for now. 

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.