Center for Digital Education & Converge: research in education technology for K-12 and higher education

Oregon, Kentucky Reflect on Cloud Email and Apps Experience

on August 26, 2011

Last year, Oregon and Kentucky became the first states in the nation to give their school districts access to cloud-based email and collaboration applications.

Since then, seven other states have moved to Google Apps for Education, including Colorado, Iowa, Maryland, Missouri, New York, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, according to Google. And two other states have agreements with Microsoft Live@edu, including Maryland and Delaware, according to Microsoft.

These agreements make the acquisition and procurement process easier for schools, Microsoft says. And they're not mutually exclusive.

For example, Maryland signed agreements through the Maryland Education Enterprise Consortium with both Google and Microsoft so districts can choose which one meets their needs. Districts also make agreements on their own with the service they prefer.

More than a year after implementation, the Oregon and Kentucky education departments share why they chose cloud apps, what lessons they learned and what advice they have for other states.
 

Why Oregon and Kentucky chose cloud apps

Oregon

Through the Accelerate Oregon initiative, the Oregon Education Department develops public-private partnerships that support student learning. By partnering with Oregon State University to run an open source platform called the Oregon Virtual School District, the department provides districts with learning and content management systems as well as voice services.

But districts need to have email to use the platform. And not every district wants to support the email infrastructure or has the resources to do so, said Steve Nelson, chief IT strategist in the Office of the Superintendent.

The office had worked with Intel marketing on the Accelerate Oregon initiative, and Intel introduced Oregon to Google. Oregon asked Google if the company could provide secure access to email for districts through the department.

The two organizations worked together for 16 months on this issue. Initially, they pursued closed domain email. But around month 12, Google changed course and wanted to offer Apps for Education without charging fees for anything except email archiving.

On April 28, 2010, Oregon signed an agreement for the full platform. And now, the 197 districts in the Beaver State choose whether they want to use the service.

"Every district has a test domain because we're in this for the long-term, and districts are moving at the pace that they can towards adoption or not adoption," Nelson said.

So far, 50 districts have fully implemented Google Apps for Education. Before the state signed the agreement, 25 to 30 other districts had been working with the apps and still are, though they haven't signed the agreement. Of the 400,000 accounts that have been created in the state, 129,000 are in production.

Fourteen districts signed agreements for Live@edu, and the Education Department is working on a similar statewide agreement with Microsoft. Nelson said it doesn't matter which cloud service the districts pick because they know their needs better. The department tries to marshall the infrastructure to meet their needs.

"It's the one time when being an enabler is a good thing," Nelson said.

Both Google and Microsoft are incredible platforms to work with, but they're an extension of what the state's already been doing to provide resources to districts over the past six years. Oregon constantly looks for opportunities from the public and private sector to improve its work.
 

Kentucky

Since 1992, Kentucky has provided 174 public school districts with enterprise technology. But the burden of implementing and sustaining the technology fell on local districts' shoulders, said Chuck Austin, project manager of the Live@edu implementation.

In 2003, the Education Department took some of the burden off the districts' shoulders by providing and managing the hardware specific to directory services and email. Six years later, Microsoft Exchange 2003 was at the end of its life.

The Office of Education Technology needed to upgrade the email system, but wanted to consolidate its infrastructure. And that's when Microsoft offered Live@edu

At first, the office blew the offer off because it didn't believe the service would come without a fee. But the company persisted.

During this time, an advisory committee of district members gave the department a long list of requirements for an email system. Those requirements included bigger mailbox sizes, collaboration features, 24/7 accessibility and mobile-friendly services.

Four key factors caused Kentucky to accept Microsoft's offer.

1. Live@edu was based on Exchange 2010, which would have been a natural migration path.

2. Each user would have 10 gigabyte mailboxes. Kentucky couldn't afford to build an infrastructure that would provide these large mailbox sizes.

3. Offices and local districts would control much of the provisioning and avoid licensing costs.

"We realized that you know what, we can't afford not to do this," Austin said.

4. In the email part of the agreement, Kentucky had the technical and legal ability to inspect email data at any time because the sponsoring institution and the service provider made the agreement. That's important when dealing with minors and meeting open records requests.

For other services including Office Web Apps and Sky Drive, the end user and the service provider made the agreement. You couldn't inspect those services without the end user's consent.

But the department and local districts needed the ability to inspect them. So in the acceptable use policies, Kentucky worked with Microsoft to include proper language that covers access to email and talks about other Live properties.

Over a two year period, the office staff prepared to migrate every district over to Live@edu in one day. And on May 21, 2010, all 174 districts went live.

"We were the first ones who were brave enough or stupid enough to migrate everything at one time," Austin said.
 

5 lessons learned

Throughout the process of planning and implementing the cloud apps, Oregon and Kentucky learned a number of lessons, including these five.

1. Because districts have responsibility for student education, it's valuable for the state to generate opportunities like the cloud email and apps agreement for them, Nelson said.

2. Signing the agreement was a legal exercise. The implementation involves a lot of support and day-to-day work and training. If Oregon did anything well, it was planning for support services, Nelson said. Oregon State University lead the technical support, and the High Desert Education Service District in Redmond provides training. Willamette Education Service District in Salem and McMinnville provides help desk support.

"It's just a lot of work," Nelson said. "And it's worth it, but it's not a simple proposition."

3. You have to be careful not to shove antiquated requirements onto a service provider, because the provider will build something that fits all of them, whether you want it or not, Austin said. The office had requirements that had been around for a long time, and the staff felt like they needed to keep them.

So Microsoft built a complex provisioning system between the active directory and the cloud that allowed the office to integrate its active directory infrastructure as it had done before. The piece, which the office dubbed the space shuttle, works wonderfully, but has a lot of complexity and overhead. If he had the chance to do it over again, Austin would have pushed back on some of the requirements and said, "Do we really need to do this?"

4. Cloud providers do have louder outages, but they're not larger. Two weeks ago, Kentucky lost access to the North American data center for three hours when Microsoft had an outage. To Austin's knowledge, that's the only time they've experienced an outage in a year and a half. And the good thing about that outage was that the office didn't have to restore the service as it did previously.

With the old system that had an email server in every district, the likelihood that a server would go down on any given day was pretty high, but it impacted an average of 3,500 in the district, Austin said.

5. Whenever you make a move like this, you will give some things up that the cloud provider will maintain. And not everyone in the IT department wants to relinquish that control.

"A lot of times your tech people don't like that because they love the control, they love to have their hands wrapped around the hardware," Austin said. 

And they also may feel like it's threatening their jobs. But now most of them embrace it because they can focus on higher-level things instead of day-to-day management of 200 servers.
 

4 pieces of advice

Both Nelson and Austin shared advice for other states that are thinking about moving to cloud email and apps.

1. Plan how you're going to archive email.

Google charges a fee to archive mail, so when you need to archive staff and student email, you have to plan for it, Nelson said. When Oregon made the agreement, some districts weren't ready to participate because they were worried about archiving.

The department didn't want these concerns to keep districts from using Google if they wanted to, so it expanded the cloud platform with Oregon State to include no fee-based archiving. Districts either use the Oregon Virtual School District platform, archive through their educational service districts or do it themselves.

Microsoft does not offer archiving now, but Office 365 will have an archiving fee on a per user basis. In Kentucky, the department does without archiving and expects that everyone understands what records they need to keep, Austin said. Because everyone now has large mailboxes, saving records is not a problem.

2. Consider support and additional resources schools will need to succeed.

Each district has similar and different needs that the state tries to meet by providing central services. 

"That takes a lot of effort in terms of thinking and listening to the districts so that you don't set up something that they don't want to use," Nelson said. "Training is probably the No. 1 issue."

Google has extraordinary online materials that help educators learn how to gain value from the tools, Nelson said. The department supplements the online materials with an annual statewide training event in October and in-person training at school sites throughout the year.

3. Get over your fear of the cloud.

States need to do their due diligence and ask the right questions about data ownership and redundancy in data centers, Austin said. That way, you can alleviate fears that people are reading your email or that the service is not secure.

4. Embrace the change.

The more you can move basic IT services to someone who's positioned better, the more you can deal with business needs above email, Austin said.

"Regardless of who it is, Google or Microsoft, they both have invested billions on behalf of students in cloud technology," Austin said. "And I think every school district in the state, every state in the country, has a responsibility to see how they can leverage those investments." 


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Tanya Roscorla

Tanya Roscorla covers education technology in the classroom, behind the scenes and on the legislative agenda. Likes: Experimenting in the kitchen, cooking up cool crafts, reading good books.

E-mail: troscorla@centerdigitaled.com
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