Michigan school districts make concerted move to the cloud


A dozen school districts in southwest Michigan are undergoing a major infrastructure upgrade — and teachers and students haven’t even noticed.

The upgrade is part of an ongoing migration to the cloud that is expected to collectively save the districts hundreds of thousands of dollars and their IT teams countless hours of work. But the move’s success is also being measured by the extent to which regular school activities have proceeded without interruption.

For example, one of the first things to move to the cloud was Moodle, the learning management system used by school districts in the Kalamazoo Regional Educational Service Agency (KRESA), and during that transition, classroom operations weren’t disrupted in the slightest.

“It was quick, it was easy and end users didn’t even know it had changed,” said Michael Coats, the infrastructure manager for Southwest MiTech, an IT support consortium that provides top-to-bottom technology services to local school districts in Kalamazoo and the surrounding area.

Southwest MiTech handles everything from computer purchases to network infrastructure and internet service providers. It currently supports 12 school districts and four charter schools/public school academies in the area.

Nathon Jepkema is the technology site coordinator for two of those districts — Paw Paw Public Schools and Gobles Public Schools — and he said students and school officials there have been able to carry on with business as usual during the cloud migration.

“If no one had told me we were doing it, I wouldn’t have known it was happening,” Jepkema said in an interview with EdScoop. “It’s completely seamless.”

Selecting a cloud service provider

Early last year, Coats began looking into cloud services and “realized this is the direction we wanted to move,” he told EdScoop. “The big goal for us was scalability.”

Coats, a self-described Microsoft “fanboy,” has been a certified Microsoft engineer for over a decade and has been loyal to the tech company for as long as he can remember. So, when Southwest MiTech decided to migrate its educational clients to the cloud, naturally, Coats planned to go with Azure, Microsoft’s cloud computing platform.

“My initial thought was, ‘Of course we’re going with Azure. That’s the next step,’” he said. “But I thought I should at least take a look at [Amazon Web Services] to check it off my list, do my due diligence.

“I realized Amazon’s infrastructure was miles ahead,” said Coats, adding that a combination of AWS’ infrastructure, features and affordability made it the obvious choice. “It wasn’t a hard sell,” he said.

Michigan districts begin migration to the cloud

Soon after settling on the provider, Southwest MiTech began working with AWS engineers to start building out the infrastructure. Amazon Web Services sent cloud specialists to Michigan and they also hosted Coats in Seattle for a few days — an experience he said felt “like Christmas.”

Now, one year after setting a three-year goal for complete cloud migration, Coats said they are about 15 percent of the way there.

One of the reasons for the slow start, he said, comes from wanting to get it right the first time.

“My motto is: do it once, do it to best practice and do it to scale,” he said. “I don’t have the time to redo things, so we want to make sure we only do it once. Our districts really rely on us to be the experts, so we have to do it to best practices. And if you don’t do it to scale, you can’t do it economically.”

Another reason is because much of the first year was spent just building the infrastructure. With that part behind them, they expect to be able to move more quickly.

Already end users have noticed that the systems are running faster and with fewer hiccups, Coats said.

For example, school and public libraries under Southwest MiTech use Follett Destiny, a library management software that allows for 24/7 access to print and digital resources. Users had previously experienced frequent issues with the software, but not since Follett Destiny moved to AWS last summer.

“We migrated it, and within a week everybody had said, ‘Wow, this is acting so much faster,’” Coats said. “We’ve had no problems with it since then.”

Benefits at the district level

Martin Public School District is one of Southwest MiTech’s newest partners, having only come on board in July. The district has seen major improvements in the last couple of months and can expect huge cost savings over the coming years, Coats said.

When the district came to Southwest MiTech, its server infrastructure was eight years old and had failed hard drives. “I have no idea how they survived, honestly,” he said. “I asked them, ‘How have you even been running?’”

Because its infrastructure was falling apart, Martin would have had to rebuild from scratch, costing them somewhere around $100,000. And then, five years later, they’d have had to do it all again, Coats said. Instead, the recent partnership allowed Martin to integrate with Southwest MiTech’s infrastructure.

Both Paw Paw and Gobles, the districts under Jepkema’s purview, have been Southwest MiTech partner districts for a couple of years.

Gobles, a small district of about 850 K-12 students, has a full one-to-one program with Google Chromebooks, Jepkema said. Paw Paw, with 2,300 students, is moving in that direction now, deploying Chromebooks to its high school students this year.

“What [Coats] and his team are doing will really benefit Gobles because they will never have to refresh their infrastructure again,” Jepkema said.

The big savings will come in a few years when they don’t have to buy new infrastructure to support their districts, he said.

There are other benefits, too. “Our budgets are tight,” he said. “Hardware failures are the norm when you try to operate on your own. [Now], we don’t experience the downtime from hardware failures that we would if it was hosted locally.”