Harry Doctor Jr., IT Manager for the West Windsor-Plainsboro (N.J.) Regional School District, found the cloud ideal for disaster recovery.

Oct 19 2021

How School Districts Can Successfully Shift to the Cloud

District IT leaders share their strategies and best practices to smoothly transition to cloud services.

Two years ago, IT Manager Harry Doctor Jr. needed to improve disaster recovery at West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District. Weather was his main concern. The New Jersey district’s two data centers were only 1.5 miles apart, so if a hurricane or another disaster took down one facility, it would likely also take out the other.

“We have had tornadoes, hurricanes and other acts of God,” Doctor recalls. “We had Hurricane Sandy. We had Hurricane Irene. Two years ago, we had some bad weather come through during the summer, and we lost power at a lot of schools in our district.”

The backup data center also had much less hardware capacity, so when needed, the IT staff could only replicate 10 to 12 of their most critical applications. Doctor wanted a more robust solution that was also resilient, flexible, cost-effective and easy to use. He determined the cloud would best meet these needs.

For years, school districts have embraced cloud services to varying degrees. They move infrastructure to the cloud so they can host their own applications or deploy services such as data analytics as well as backup and recovery.

During COVID-19, more districts accelerated their digital transformation efforts, with many shifting to the cloud to enable remote learning. However, migrating to cloud infrastructure services can be complex and daunting.

“The most important thing for me was to move resources to the cloud space and back without a steep learning curve,” Doctor says.

After doing research, he subscribed to VMware Cloud (VMC) on AWS — a cloud service launched by VMware and Amazon Web Services — because he was already familiar with VMware, having previously used its software to virtualize his on-premises servers.

Now, if a big storm were to strike New Jersey, Doctor could seamlessly migrate all the important applications to the cloud in advance to ensure uptime.

The district is now reaping many of the benefits that the cloud promises, including agility, scalability and cost savings.

READ THE WHITE PAPER: As cloud adoption accelerates, security must keep pace.

Making Business Sense with a Hybrid Approach

Some districts making the transition to the cloud have deployed a hybrid of on-premises and cloud architecture like West Windsor-Plainsboro, while others are still in the early stages of cloud adoption. Having gone through the process, IT leaders from Broward County Public Schools, Peninsula School District and Tulsa Public Schools are happy to share lessons learned.

To ensure a smooth transition, these IT leaders suggest districts set up applications correctly and secure them against cyberattacks, run pilots to ensure a cloud migration is cost- effective, and take advantage of cloud providers’ engineers and support teams for implementation guidance.

Some school districts just starting their cloud journey mistakenly think they have to migrate everything to the cloud or that every cloud project saves money, says Joe Jennings, chief information and analytics officer at Tulsa Public Schools in Oklahoma.

Tulsa Public Schools’ Sean Berkstresser and Joe Jennings found value in a hybrid cloud and on-premises architecture.

Tulsa Public Schools’ Sean Berkstresser and Joe Jennings found value in a hybrid cloud and on-premises architecture.

Although Tulsa Public Schools is a cloud-first organization, it only moves applications to the cloud if it makes business sense and provides value. “If cloud is not the best option, we will keep it on-premises,” he says.

Most mission-critical administrative applications are still on-premises because it’s more affordable to operate them in house, says Sean Berkstresser, the district’s executive director of information and analytics.

Calculating Costs and Determining ROI

While savings can be a major incentive to switch to the cloud, cloud pricing models are sometimes confusing for cloud newbies. It’s much cheaper to sign a multiyear contract than to pay an hourly rate, says Kris Hagel, executive director of digital learning at Peninsula School District in Gig Harbor, Wash.

When considering infrastructure services in the public cloud, Hagel says districts should pilot their cloud projects before fully implementing them to make sure the technology meets their requirements and is affordable.

That’s what the district did before deploying the AWS virtual desktop service AppStream, which allows students to run powerful software such as Adobe Creative Cloud, computer-assisted design programs and other programs on their Chromebooks for their graphics design, engineering and computer science classes.

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“We started to slowly get an idea of the cost,” Hagel says. “We used spreadsheets to do cost estimates and realized this would be a good thing for us.”

Vincent Vinueza, director of technical support services for Broward County Public Schools in Florida, also recommends pilots to get an accurate forecast of infrastructure cloud costs. The major cloud providers offer pricing calculators, but the results can be confusing.

“Call your provider,” Vinueza says. “Explain the situation and your expectations from a cost and delivery perspective, and do a proof of concept.”

At West Windsor-Plainsboro, Doctor knew a cloud subscription required a big annual investment. However, by migrating to the cloud, the district would need less on-premises hardware. When Doctor factored in hardware prices and the cost of maintaining, powering and cooling it, he found a lower total cost of ownership.

Now, two years later, those savings have come to fruition. VMC on AWS is worth the investment, Doctor says. When the pandemic closed down schools, the cloud setup provided the district the extra compute power and storage it needed to pivot and provide virtual desktops to a suddenly remote workforce and student body.

“We paid for VMC as an insurance policy, waiting for a disaster, and I’d call COVID-19 a pretty big disaster,” he says.

Training and Migration Help From Cloud Professionals

Major cloud providers such as AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud have built secure cloud services, but IT departments still have to configure their cloud workloads securely to protect student and employee data, says Peninsula School District’s Hagel.

“When you start building things in the cloud, make sure you have the same thought processes you would have if you built them locally, such as building in firewalls and securing networks,” he says.

IT leaders advise clients to take advantage of the engineering and customer support services that cloud giants are offering as they focus on attracting new educational customers.

When Broward County Public Schools wanted to run a proof of concept to explore data backup and recovery in the cloud, Vinueza says they benefited from Azure’s attention to detail and accommodating nature. The district recently purchased Veeam software to speed data backup and recovery at its in-house data center. It also wanted to replicate the data to Azure Blob storage for extra protection. Azure supplied the district with engineers free of charge to assist with implementation, and the IT staff learned from the experience.

“It gave our team members hands-on experience with the solution and let them shadow the Azure engineers,” says Vinueza, whose district chose to fully implement data backup in Azure.

Doctor also received help while implementing VMC on AWS at West Windsor-Plainsboro. He effortlessly connected his on-premises VMware vCenter with the cloud and set up a secure tunnel with a Palo Alto Networks firewall. But he ran into a few stumbling blocks with two new cloud technologies, so he called his CDW•G account manager, who connected him to a VMware engineer.

“They helped us get up and running and fully connected,” he says.

Training is also important. Just because IT teams have managed similar systems on-premises does not mean they automatically know how to manage apps in the cloud. Usually, hosting apps in the cloud requires a separate skill set, says Tulsa Public Schools’ Joe Jennings.

“Don’t assume it’s an easy shift,” says Jennings, who has provided his district’s IT staff with training to develop their cloud skills. “A lot of the concepts are the same, but the cloud has different terminology and toolsets.”

With this in mind, Broward County Public Schools encourages its employees to attend webinars and do research to develop their cloud skills and learn about new cloud solutions. “When people are updated on the latest technology, it makes them comfortable,” Vinueza says. “They are no longer hesitant to do something cloud-related.”

MORE ON EDTECH: Cloud computing impacts K–12 classrooms.

Photography by Colin Lenton