Two years ago, hundreds of K-12 school districts in Illinois decided to band together to pool resources and stretch their limited IT budgets. The result was IlliniCloud, a private cloud service that provides, data protection, data archiving and compute infrastructure for nearly one-third of the state’s school districts.
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Jason Radford, system administrator for the Bloomington school district, seeded the IlliniCloud when he came to the district in 2008 from an Internet publishing company. Seeing scant resources and a state budget shortfall, Radford networked with IT professionals in other districts who were in a similar bind.
“The idea was born out of the economy of scale you can get with hundreds of districts, all with meager budgets, pooling their money to form a cloud resource,” he said.
The non-profit IlliniCloud includes about 300 of the approximately 860 districts in the state, and has the blessing of the state board of education and the governor’s office.
IlliniCloud has full data centers in Bloomington and DeKalb, and a smaller facility in Collinsville that serves as a replication target. The main data centers have common technology such as Cisco Systems Inc.’s Unified Computing System (UCS), MDS Fibre Channel (FC) switch and Nexus 10 Gigabit Ethernet switches; VMware for server virtualization; and F5 Networks Inc.’s ARX appliances for file virtualization, tiering and data migration. Radford said the plan is to eventually standardize on storage, too, but the original set up consisted of products the district already owned.
SAN, clustered NAS, file virtualization key storage technologies
The Bloomington data center has a 3PAR (now part of Hewlett-Packard Co.) InServ T400 FC storage-area network (SAN) as well as a Sun (now Oracle) 7410 Unified Storage System for clustered network-attached storage (NAS). In DeKalb, IlliniCloud uses EMC Clariion FC SANs.
With more than 100 TB of file data, Radford said he plans to move at least 80% of the infrastructure to clustered NAS. He’s considering EMC Isilon and NetApp as possible NAS vendors.
The IlliniCloud uses CommVault Simpana 9 for backup, archiving and application-based replication.
Radford said the IlliniCloud follows the Cisco-NetApp FlexPod reference architecture for features such as multi-tenancy, although it's not currently using NetApp storage. It runs Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE) on UCS, but not yet to the storage.
Optimizing the private cloud service for the district’s needs required some creativity by the eight-person staff that manages IlliniCloud. For instance, “ARX doesn’t like to see block storage on the back end, but we cheated by presenting virtual filers inside of VMware where we can actually give the Windows shares disk from NFS or block data stores,” Radford said. “The ARX platform either sits behind 10-gig NFS or 2 TB VMFS [Virtual Machine File System] data stores, or presents that to virtual Windows filers. That gives us more flexibility.”
Radford is also preparing to run a pilot for five schools using F5's ARX Cloud Extender with his ARX2000 and ARX VE (virtual edition) appliances to migrate archive data to the cloud, freeing up space on the districts’ local storage. “We’ll take data more than a year old, archive it to the cloud and stub it out locally so it looks like it’s available,” he said. “We’ll store, manage and protect it in our cloud. The school district doesn’t need any storage for it.”
IlliniCloud charges districts an average of $200 per server per year for a medium-sized virtual machine (VM). Radford said he estimates the cloud saves districts approximately 50% to 60% of the total cost of its IT infrastructure, including about 65% savings for storage.
Disaster recovery proves to be a valuable cloud service
IlliniCloud’s cloud services include infrastructure (CPU, servers, storage), software (email, education applications, data warehousing), and disaster recovery (DR).
Radford said the DR service that went live in February is the most popular. That service uses Simpana to snapshot and replicate virtual machines and send them to the cloud. IlliniCloud has no tape; its schools back up and archive to disk targets and data is replicated between data centers. For districts with bandwidth issues, the IlliniCloud team can put data on local drives and ship them to the schools for restores.
“Districts load the CommVault client and they can do backups and restore it back from the cloud, or [they can] fire up a virtual machine at our infrastructure and restore it there,” he said. “If a district has virtualization, we have a Simpana VSA [Virtual Server Agent] that will snapshot and lift virtual machines into the cloud.”
Radford said the IT resources in the state’s school district vary greatly. “We have school districts with T1s and schools with 500 [Mbps]-plus connectivity,” he said. “We have PCs and Macs, and some are mainly Linux. Some school districts have dedicated IT staffs, some don’t. Some districts’ budgets allow them to get a refurbished PC; they can go get a Buffalo drive and plug it in as a file server.”
Radford is also working with the board of education to deliver applications such as Illinois’ Learning Management System (LMS) through the cloud. “When you boil it down, it’s data warehousing delivered to the teacher level where they can look at student achievement, where their students are doing well or where they need improvement,” Radford said of LMS. “The IlliniCloud would be the delivery cloud for that.”