Building out a private cloud, Chicago style

Illinois techies band together to sneak a cloud through the system and deliver for schools.

What would you do with a free high-speed network that piped together all your various data centers? Why, build a cloud, of course!

The story of how the K-12 educational agency in Illinois drove a cloud computing project through the works is illustrative of how cloud-style service delivery requires deep-down, long-term changes to how an IT department functions.

I might not be able to say exactly what is wrong [with an application], but I can tell them exactly where it is wrong.

Frank Spicuzza, systems admin for Indiana's Information Office of Technology

Jim Peterson, CTO of the IlliniCloud, was the director of technology for K-12 education in Bloomington when work began on solving a familiar, thorny and persistent problem: supporting IT infrastructure at schools. He said that, although 870 school districts might have had the same needs, IT operations were handled differently from one locale to the next. He also said there was an overabundance of resources in some places -- and none in others -- so a small coalition of administrators wanted to solve that problem by adopting the cloud computing model.

"Twenty districts had the excess infrastructure; we selected three based on geography," he said. "Excess infrastructure" meant idle storage in some cases, underutilized application servers in others, or even available data center space waiting to be racked and stacked.

Peterson said the idea was pretty easy to grok for end users; even school principals had heard of the Internet by now, and watching Amazon prove the model commercially made it an viable idea for IT staff. He said one of the linchpins of the project was ubiquitous, excellent private network capabilities provided by the state's Department of Central Management Services. The Illinois Century Network serves the entire state and provided a central hub to design the IlliniCloud around.

"Having this closed network was nice and fun, and didn't cost us anything," Peterson said.

Free networking is a pretty compelling place to start building a cloud. It also excused the project from the security and data management concerns involved in public hosting. Peterson added that they're not paying for floor space either, since the data centers are already run by the school districts.

The evolving IT needs of classrooms
Peterson said IT needs were rapidly growing as modern technology entered the classrooms; aside from basic technology tools like email and desktop support, multimedia files were quickly overloading local systems.

"They might need a new student platform, some schools may need backups; other ones might have a lot of services, but not enough people to manage it," he said.

One example was Learn360, an online educational service that Peterson said was a great tool but slow to use over limited Internet capabilities at many schools. The IlliniCloud stepped in as a substitute.

"We host all their videos," he said. "They're loving it."

Peterson said that, for him, the key was to be able to combine disparate resources into amorphous resource pools. He takes pride in being vendor-neutral, doing everything with homegrown management and off the shelf hardware and software. IlliniCloud partnered with CDW for said off the shelf IT products, and CDW also provides some services.

"We have NetApp and 3PAR and EMC, we have Sun stuff, it doesn't matter to us," he said.

There was a bigger challenge in starting to deliver Software as a Service (SaaS) style automation, since many of the traditional software vendors Illinois used weren't ready to get sucked up into a centralized architecture.

"We're working on SaaS offerings, but that been a little slower," he said. "We have all these vendors, like library automation software; they're not ready for cloud yet."

States and school districts see immediate cloud benefits
"The primary use case is storage and disaster recovery," said Peterson, which should be off-site anyway and was the most pressing need for many districts. This isn't quite an Amazon Web Services-esque self-service cloud, although it's close. IlliniCloud takes requests from school administrator through an online form and then sets about delivering the service and bills the schools for it, but Peterson said it is light years better than the normal way of getting IT, which is all provisioned at the local level. Centralizing everything makes it possible for the IlliniCloud to most efficiently distribute resources.

Having this closed network was nice and fun, and didn't cost us anything.

Jim Peterson, CTO of IlliniCloud

Other state administrators see similar efficiencies as basic IT services gradually consolidate and commoditize. Frank Spicuzza, systems administrator for the State of Indiana's Information Office of Technology, said his department now runs about 2,500 physical servers and 800 virtual ones from a few locations that serve in place of local, individual application servers for things like email. It is part of a long-term push by Indiana to get state agencies weaned off localized IT deployments and into a more centralized IT model.

"When you have a handful of guys who can manage 10 Exchange servers rather than one guy managing one server, it's a huge benefit," he said.

Spicuzza said he doesn't think Indiana has a cloud per se. He's still doing a lot of hands-on operations, only now he's got tools like Precise Software's application performance management that give him a visibility in systems he didn't have before. Before rolling out monitoring, Spicuzza said, end users and developers would complain about outages or slowdowns and he would have to physically visit a site to track down the problem. Now he's got a dashboard and a supply of data to troubleshoot with before going on a snipe hunt.

"I might not be able to say exactly what is wrong [with an application], but I can tell them exactly where it is wrong," he said.

Spicuzza said the shift in Indiana is fairly organic; as local agencies need more capability, they don't have the budget anymore to hire expensive consultants or invest in new systems. They're coming to the state OIT out of necessity. Spicuzza said the individual, local IT operator of old is fading away; now his office is running low on staff instead as demand grows.

Even if they don't operate on the same scale, a lot of this is going to sound familiar to IT professionals in many organizations. No matter the toolset or the scope of the services delivered, it's impossible to buck the trend of both doing more with less and fewer hands-on operations. That's not exactly good news for the IT guy working in the town hall basement, but it is good for stretched IT budgets and end users. Welcome to your "state cloud."

Carl Brooks is the Senior Technology Writer for SearchCloudComputing.com. Contact him at cbrooks@techtarget.com.

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