No matter how many car washes, talent shows or bake sales schools host to raise money, adding funds to their coffers is a recurring problem.

This perpetual financial difficulty in education makes expansive technology purchases or changes seem like a pipe dream for school CIOs, and has education technologists searching for ways to stretch money.

“We’ve been looking, like many school districts, to find avenues that leverage the money we have, the capacity for what we need to do and the knowledge of other people across the state,” said Brian Engle, executive director of educational technology for Glenview School District 34 in Glenview, Ill.

Engle’s district is one of roughly 150 Illinois K-12 schools that joined a cloud computing project called IlliniCloud, which lets schools of all sizes capitalize on hosted, shared technology resources that they normally can’t afford on their own.

Launching IlliniCloud

In 2005, state K-12 school leaders recognized the need to expand technology services while their budgets tightened and they had less money to spend on technology. Some of these schools were already working with consultants from technology vendor CDW for advice on IT strategy, which ultimately led to the project’s creation. The schools wanted to enhance their disaster recovery capabilities and found, through collaboration, that some sites weren’t adequately prepared. And enhancing disaster recovery would have likely required money they just didn’t have.

IlliniCloud, a nonprofit consortium, was launched in February 2009 and is a cloud network supported by servers located in three different school districts across the state.

“[IlliniCloud] started to look at services that it could begin to provide, knowing that budgets were starting to become tighter and tighter, but the services still needed to be delivered to the school,” said John Pellettiere, CDW’s director of K-12 education. “Even though you have less money, you still need to provide that high level of service to both the school and classroom.”

IlliniCloud’s hardware setup includes Cisco Nexus 7000 series data center switches that connect network pieces, and EMC Data Domain storage technology. The organization is supported by federal grant money that goes to the Illinois State Board of Education.

Using IlliniCloud, participants have scalable computing resources, multiple data centers, robust storage capacity and networking infrastructure at their disposal. Glenview became a customer in 2010 and houses its library services data in the cloud.

Engle’s experience with the hosting organization has been good so far, and he recommends the environment to other districts. “Instead of us going out and buying a new server with new specs and everything we needed,” he said, “we took one of the virtual servers that we have available to us on the IlliniCloud.”

Joining the Initiative

The annual fee for IlliniCloud is based on district size. Districts with 2,500 students or fewer, for instance, pay $500 annually; medium districts with 2,501 to 10,000 students pay $1,000; and larger districts with more than 10,000 students pay $1,500. The IlliniCloud governing board runs the organization, and according to CTO Jim Peterson, the staff is a mixture of paid contractors and school employees who volunteer their time.

“[The IlliniCloud creators] were able to leverage a pay-as-you-go model for disaster recovery,” Pellettiere said. “Some schools weren’t doing it or weren’t doing it as effectively as they could, because they didn’t have the resources to outlay the money for servers and storage.”

The IlliniCloud website has Web forms for interested districts, with options for public and private institutions. There’s also information about a professional development track, which is still being finalized, that will allow teachers to learn about data-driven decision-making. Leadership training will be held for administrators, and technical training will be hosted for other personnel. Districts must cover the cost of attendance and training, but the organization may offset some costs if funding permits. The site’s sign-up form requires curious districts to provide information about their current technology setups and IT staff. They’re also asked to participate in workgroups once they agree to the service.

“We have a list where people fill out a form on our website. It’s as simple as that,” Peterson said, adding that schools use IlliniCloud for three things: infrastructure as a service, software as a service and disaster recovery. “How much RAM, how much speed they need … we’re able to rent that to them.”

The pay-as-you-go model is suited for schools of various sizes and needs. “We’re all doing the same types of things, so we’re trying to reduce our cost by shared infrastructure,” Peterson said.

It’s too soon for Engle to have fully evaluated the cost savings Glenview has experienced, but he knows money has been saved. And on the whole, most districts using IlliniCloud are seeing a 30 to 60 percent reduction in their costs. “From a cost-avoidance perspective,” he said, “we have not had to specifically buy servers as we have adopted new programs.”

Hilton Collins, Staff Writer Hilton Collins  |  GT Staff Writer

By day, Hilton Collins is a staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines who covers sustainability, cybersecurity and disaster management issues. By night, he’s a sci-fi/fantasy fanatic, and if he had to choose between comic books, movies, TV shows and novels, he’d have a brain aneurysm. He can be reached at hcollins@govtech.com and on @hiltoncollins on Twitter.