Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia digitally transforms with AWS
Loudoun County Public Schools (LCPS) in Virginia has two on-premises data centers. One was built in the 1990s – almost 30 years ago – and the second data center is close to 15 years old. In recent years, LCPS has experienced multiple unit failures, and started to feel the strain of their aging infrastructure.
Aaron Smith, Director of Infrastructure for LCPS says, “We weren’t staffed with data center engineers to run whips and power. We couldn’t guarantee up-time or reliability.” Smith remembers one weekend when there was a 48-hour power outage when LCPS experienced a two-day down period. After this incident, LCPS began evaluating their cloud provider options.
LCPS modernizes its aging IT infrastructure to handle peak and beyond
As the third largest school division in the Commonwealth of Virginia, LCPS serves more than 82,000 students across 92 facilities with 15 high schools, 17 middle schools, 58 elementary schools, and two special purpose schools. With their on-premises data centers, Smith says they were “constantly buying new equipment. The way we were delivering services, there was a lot of redundancy without a lot of reliability.”
The team began experimenting with the cloud with small workloads in the Amazon Web Services (AWS) environment. After their team of system engineers confidently grew their cloud skills, they started a more ambitious project – a seven-month plan to migrate their student information system.
At the time, the student information was stored across 65 on-premises servers. Smith says, “We were constantly throwing resources at it, but we don’t always need the hardware. There are four peak periods that coincide with four grading periods. All of the parents want to see the grades, so we were built for peak.”
In March 2019, the team created a plan to migrate the services to the cloud. Since then, LCPS has run two report card cycles in the cloud, and they have experienced no issues with peak performance.
From behind-the-scenes modernization to improving the classroom experience for teachers and students
During the 2018-2019 academic school year, LCPS began to further experiment with the cloud. Vince Scheivert, Assistant Superintendent of Digital Innovation for LCPS says, “Last year was the first year we delivered desktop-as-a-service via the cloud to 318 students. It was very successful. All of their files were in the cloud. 40 gigs on our network would take forever to load, maybe 30 minutes. On the cloud, it takes 30 seconds.”
The program was so successful for students looking to learn flexibly, outside of the confines of a computer lab, that LCPS has plans to significantly expand the scope of the virtualized desktops. Scheivert explains, “This year, we’re deploying the service to 5,000 students. All of our students taking computer math and computer science classes will be given an environment inside of AWS. Students were locked into the lab in order to use the tools before; now they can use it whenever and wherever.”
The shift from a 30-minute wait period to a 30-second wait period before students are up and running has fundamentally changed the way teachers can utilize class time. Smith says, “The change has given back a lot of time to the teachers. There has been a huge proliferation of computer science and computer security classes, and we can’t necessarily scale physical classroom space to meet demand. Having the ability to deliver virtually gives us an opportunity to give access to an entire school.”
Scheivert adds, “Teachers don’t have to build in instructional time while they wait for everything to spin up. A single sign-on portal allows students to go into the environment immediately. They walk in and they’re up and running at the start of class.”
So far, students have had positive feedback. Smith says, “Students have loved having access to these modern tools. Many of the students are already using things like AWS Educate. For many of them, stepping into a lab can feel a bit dated. These tools feel modern, and the companies they want to work for are using them. They are very excited about that.”
Why LCPS runs on AWS
When first evaluating their options, Smith says, “All the things we wanted to do – backup, integration, security – AWS checked all the boxes for us. Other providers were saying things like ‘it’s on the roadmap’ or ‘coming soon,’ and AWS already had the capabilities we needed.”
With fewer physical items to buy, the school district can better focus on improving its systems and workflow, and continue to drive change for their infrastructure, for their classrooms, and for parents, who are now able to better interact with their student’s data, such as report cards. Today, Smith says, “We don’t have to think about spending $1-2 million on a facility to house a data center.”
“Our largest workload is run through AWS. We still have some on-premises infrastructure, but 40-50% is currently offloaded. All of our cloud backup has been put into AWS. All of the backend infrastructure and computer power is in AWS,” the team notes.
Because of their migration to the cloud, LCPS has been approached by other school districts seeking advice. Most come with security concerns, but Smith says his response is always the same, “We ask, do you think your on-prem data center is safe? The cloud is more secure. Your data is protected, encrypted, there’s more security.”
Since migrating to AWS, Smith and Scheivert cite business agility as one of the largest benefits, “We’ve seen reduced time to implement. I don’t need to order hardware and find rack space. Within 20 minutes, we can stand up 10 new servers, and they’re off and running. We didn’t go into the cloud thinking only about cost reduction. We wanted to innovate. We wanted to move faster, and now we can.”