K-12 market: Channel takes on networking, storage, security projects

Students are heading for vacation, but K-12 sector projects in networking, storage and security are getting underway for channel partners with an education focus.

IT opportunities in the K-12 education market for channel partners abound, and that's outside of the significant uptick in the sale of Chromebooks -- think networking, storage, security and cloud, for example.

In fact, vendors and partners who cater to this market segment agree that IT discussions in the K-12 market are increasingly more comprehensive and include infrastructure, security and mobility management.

CEO and analyst Anurag Agrawal at Techaisle described the opportunity for partners in the K-12 sector as huge. He pointed out that there are 55 million K-12 students in the U.S., 49 million of whom are in 98,000 public schools in about 135,000 school districts.

Anurag AgrawalAnurag Agrawal

Agrawal attributes the significant opportunity in the K-12 sector to the top IT priorities for K-12 districts; IT purchase decisions are made at the district level. Top priorities include, for example, cost reduction, as budgets aren't growing; basic maintenance of PCs, servers, the network and security; backup and disaster recovery; more recently, mobile device management; and storage and network upgrades, to name a handful.

Partners do need to know that working in the K-12 market has its challenges, namely, long sales cycles, contracts and having to deal with layers of individuals who are in some shape or form involved in the process. It's no wonder that successful partners designate the education sector as a specialty focus area within their business.

That's the case at AllConnected, an IT services provider based in Simi Valley, Calif. AllConnected has been active in the K-12 (actually, the K-20) education market since the company began more than 15 years ago. Today, 35% of the firm's annual revenue comes from the K-12 segment -- a significant piece of the company's business -- and it's a primary vertical, according to Alan McDonald, president and CEO .

AllConnected focuses on connectivity, architecture, deployment and management of connectivity -- security, firewall, enterprise networking and wireless -- in the K-12 market where Cisco is the company's primary technology partner. AllConnected also partners with Microsoft and several security vendors. On the managed services side, the partner doesn't touch the desktop, but does focus on security, patching and antivirus for Microsoft operating systems; patching and network management for all of Cisco's networking gear; and management, reporting and performance tuning for the data center.

E-Rate vs. ecosystem

One trend that McDonald has seen in the K-12 sector: School districts are embracing E-Rate for Category 2 connections for the extension of internet delivery into classrooms. Up until recently, E-Rate funding only supported internet connectivity to the network edge.

The adoption of Common Core initiatives, including online testing, is driving opportunities for partners around enablement. "Is there enough data storage and bandwidth to accomplish this? What about security? Is there enough security in play to avoid privacy breaches?" asked Patti O'Leary, program manager of vertical markets at Ingram Micro. "The move to online testing should prompt channel partners to start a conversation around networking, security, data storage and bandwidth," she added.

O'Leary noted that Ingram Micro education partners fall into one of two buckets: E-Rate or ecosystem. Ecosystem includes and goes beyond the connected classroom, inspiring more creative and flexible offerings that IT service providers can source as they see appropriate. The E-Rate program, which is funded by federal dollars that trickle down to schools and libraries with approved vendors lists -- including Cisco, Juniper, Cradlepoint and Hewlett Packard Enterprise, for example -- is hyper-focused on specific technologies and offerings, including telecommunications, internet access, internal connection services and equipment, O'Leary explained.

E-Rate is a bid business, or contract business, so it's competitive and consistent. Ecosystem business, on the other hand, is a more general business where partners have more creative flexibility and the ability to add value. "In many cases, partners use our grants program to find and secure the money to fund the customized solutions," said O'Leary.

Tracy McMahan, co-owner of White River Services and Solutions in Batesville, Ark., also sees a growing opportunity in networking. "There's a push to get better data services into the school, so we see a lot of districts updating their switching closets, their cabling and infrastructure," he said, noting that they're doing that through E-Rate. The company, founded in 2009, focuses primarily on the K-12 education market.

There's a push to get better data services into the school, so we see a lot of districts updating their switching closets, their cabling and infrastructure.
Tracy McMahanco-owner of White River Services and Solutions

The impetus to improve networking is being driven by the explosion of Chromebooks and other mobile devices in the classroom. "Wireless is huge, and we're seeing a wireless access point per classroom," he said.

Network, speed and capacity improvements are allowing the school districts to consider other technologies, such as VoIP. McMahan noted that this is another growing area in the K-12 market, partially driven by cost savings and enabled by upgraded network infrastructure.

White River developed its own VoIP intellectual property, called skyePBX, which allows the partner to either host a VoIP server natively or to put a server in the cloud. "We're doing that in schools, banks, churches and in some city entities," McMahan said. The K-12 opportunity is big, he added.  

The client side: Chromebooks and related services

Perhaps the most commonly talked about technology in the K-12 education sector is the Chromebook. "The biggest trend is the growth of the Chromebook, and it has legitimized the category in K-12," said Linn Huang, research director at IDC. The inexpensive devices are allowing budget-constrained school districts to get devices into the hands of students.

According to IDC, 1.2 million Chromebooks were shipped in Q1 2016 (January 1 through March 31). Such major vendors as HP, Lenovo, Dell and Acer have a Chromebook play. To highlight the popularity of Chromebooks, overall, 1.7 million PCs (desktops, laptops, tablets and Chromebooks) were shipped during the same time period.

Partners cannot live by Chromebooks alone. At a low price point, Chromebook sales are a race to the bottom, said Jake Blum, owner of Systems Plus in Lebanon, N.H. Not to mention, it's a rat race, with competition coming from retail stores, commercial distributors and, sometimes, the vendors themselves.

According to Blum, this is the first year that he's seen request for proposals for sizable quantities of Chromebooks, and his company currently has a bid out for 400 devices for a local school district.

The value that Chromebooks drive for partners tends to be at the local or district level around consulting, deployment, bandwidth assessment, management and break/fix, according to Huang. Systems Plus, for example, has one engineer for whom 80% of his billable time is with the local school districts taking care of their networks.

The best advice that industry players have for partners in the K-12 market is to shift their conversation from devices to outcomes, because that's where the real value-add is for K-12 IT.

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