Networking: Virtualizing Desktops
The Collier County School District (CCSD) of Naples, Fla., one of the largest districts in the country, has information technology on a grand scale, including more than 21,000 computers and 700 servers. Keeping the technology network up-to-date is a large undertaking, and regular maintenance, software updates and bugs could require accessing thousands of machines individually. Additionally, the CCSD Technology help desk had received more than 16,500 calls for assistance every year. Maintaining the district's computers was expensive, difficult and time-consuming, and administrators needed to find a better way to make resource management more efficient.
CCSD had built its infrastructure in the standard way that large districts and businesses have for years, installing thousands of computers, each with its own software, hardware, memory and desktop configurations. The computers ran through a local server, which provided Internet access and data backup. Especially in a school district as huge as CCSD, this inefficient infrastructure made management and updating an overwhelming task. "We were replacing about 7,000 desktops every year, and we had to get it all done during the two months of summer," says Thomas Petry, director of technology.
The district found an answer in an emerging technology for large computer networks that used what are known as "virtual desktops," where individual computers do not store information locally. Instead, they act as "dummy" terminals (or "thin clients") connected to a central server bank, which contains desktop configurations for sometimes up to thousands of machines.
The operating system, memory and hard drive, as well as hardware and software programs, are all accessed remotely, so individual desktops are essentially "hollow" and no longer need to be updated or replaced as frequently. "The greatest issue we were dealing with was the high cost of maintaining and replacing those desktop PCs," Petry says. "Now we can simply cycle out the servers, and hold off on replacing the thin clients for much longer, saving a lot of time and resources." Various virtual desktop environments were considered, and district administrators selected Hewlett Packard's new Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) with HP BladeSystem servers, DC7600 ultraslim desktops, and VMware ESX virtualization software from HP partner company VMware.
Everyday maintenance by IT staff has been revolutionized. Instead of physically accessing individual computers when problems arise, technology personnel can repair or replace a problematic computer configuration remotely. The district estimates that it can now solve 95 percent of computer problems in this way, and most of these instantaneously, from the help desk. This remote online accessibility also extends to staff members and students, who can access their virtual desktops and saved data from anywhere in the world. District security is also improved significantly, as sensitive data are stored on central servers instead of on PCs, laptops, disks or fl ash drives, which are vulnerable to theft and vandalism.
These features mean that virtualization has the potential to revolutionize school district computing. However, the technology is so new that software companies are sorting out such issues as licensing agreements, since VDIs can enable thousands of computers to use a single software program, for example. Software vendors, therefore, have specific policies regarding virtualization. At this early stage, a VDI may be appropriate for large districts like CCSD, but may not be cost-effective for smaller districts. Based on the many problems these systems solve, it will be interesting to watch VDIs progress.
Kurt O. Dyrli is a contributing writer.