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School desktop disruption

Shifts to virtual machines expands access, saves money and improves user experience
Saving time in Biloxi: Technology director Mike Jennings works on a computer while John Farris, network supervisor, looks on. Biloxi Public Schools’ students use thin clients that speed up downloads and ease testing prep compared to traditional computers.
Saving time in Biloxi: Technology director Mike Jennings works on a computer while John Farris, network supervisor, looks on. Biloxi Public Schools’ students use thin clients that speed up downloads and ease testing prep compared to traditional computers.

The concept of “going virtual” has been gaining traction in the IT world for years, beginning in data centers with server virtualization.

Today, school district CIOs who have taken the next step—the virtualization of desktop computers—see a new range of benefits, including increased flexibility for users, cost savings, stronger security, and more frequent updates of hardware and software.

Virtualization technology moves a user’s desktop and associated software into the cloud so the environment can be accessed from any physical computer.

Virginia’s York County School Division in 2009 launched a product from Citrix called XenDesktop Platinum. The software delivers full Windows Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), allowing users to access applications and data from any computer.

“There were two main reasons we went down the VDI path when we did: access and regular updates,” says Douglas Meade, IT director at York County schools. “Teachers wanted to have access to what they had at school while at home, and because of staffing limitations, we refreshed hardware and software only every six or seven years.”

Desktop computers in classrooms, labs and offices use Citrix Provisioning Services (PVS), which provides single-instance image for XenDesktops, which means the system can store one copy of content or an application that multiple users can share.

The district operates an open wireless network that serves district-provided wireless devices, such as notebook computers, iPads, Chromebooks and all BYOT devices. The wireless network is separate from the secure hardwired network, and devices on the wireless network access resources on the secure network via a secure gateway, the NetScaler. All internet access is content-filtered.

When using any wireless device within the district (or any device outside the district) students and teachers can connect to a virtual desktop through a secure gateway to access the same resources as if they were sitting at any of their school’s desktop computers, Meade says.

For a district the size of York County, with 12,500 students and 19 schools, the servers, storage systems, network load balancers and other equipment cost about $2.5 million. York County spends about $380,000 per year for the Citrix licensing, Meade says.

“This is about providing value to teachers and students that cannot be simulated with any other technology,” Meade says. “It provides access anytime, anywhere and on any device.”

An investment that pays for itself

Virtualization comes with significant upfront costs. Districts may spend at least $50,000 on consulting, project management, software licenses, hardware and staff time. And the price can quickly escalate based on district size, complexity and strategy, says Jim Flanagan, chief learning services officer at ISTE.

The technology requires a significant amount of storage and high-bandwidth local networks because software, operating systems and data are stored centrally rather than on local hard drives. And more bandwidth will be needed if schools want to give students access to graphic-intensive applications such as Autodesk and Adobe Creative Suite.

But the money can be recouped. Along with savings on IT support and software licenses, the advantages of virtualization include simplified management, enhanced security, improved productivity and a more consistent user experience. Hard-dollar payback can often be realized in less than three years, Flanagan says.

Setup varies by district. Some districts store data and applications on their own servers in their data centers while others rely on cloud services, he says.

Many districts adopt the technology to extend the lifespan of desktop computers by as much as five years, Flanagan says. Although some users are moving to mobile devices, many still prefer desktops.

If teachers are comfortable using desktop computers and they’re useful to them in their environment, why not enable that with lower costs and take advantage of the installed base if possible, Flanagan says.

Virtualization also requires less maintenance, a real benefit in a time when funding for tech support staff isn’t increasing, he adds. “CIOs and administrators should always consider desktop virtualization deployment in the context of the broader strategic migration to the cloud and mobile devices,” Flanagan says.

Installing a leaner system

Biloxi Public Schools in Mississippi has deployed VDI appliances from HVE ConneXions in five labs across three buildings and on every student computer at one elementary school.

Virtualizing just a small number of client devices has provided multiple benefits. To access virtual desktops, students use thin-client devices that don’t have any local storage capacity. The thin clients cost half that of standard desktop computers and use a fraction of the electricity, says Mike Jennings, Biloxi’s IT director.

The district was paying an average of $980 for traditional computers, and the equivalent thin client and required licensing costs less than $650.

The time savings is “staggering,” Jennings says. For example, updating Windows on a regular desktop computer can take a technician about an hour and a half. In comparison, thin-client devices can be running with new software within five minutes, he says.

And virtual computers are in a read-only mode, preventing users from installing non-educational software or making system changes that could cause a regular computer to become inoperable or vulnerable to a hacker, Jennings says.

Furthermore, Biloxi now can assign a single virtual hard drive to many thin clients, allowing a technician to prepare for a testing process in about an hour, regardless of how many client devices are in use or where they’re located. With traditional computer equipment it can take multiple technicians several days at each location.

Biloxi’s network infrastructure was sufficient to support the virtual system. Engineers from HVE and Howard Technology Solutions, an IT firm, helped set up the system and trained staff to use and maintain the environment.

The initial cost of converting to virtual desktops included servers and licensing, and Biloxi also purchased new thin clients. “Coupled with the extended life of the solid-state thin clients and a fraction of the support hours to set up and maintain them, the total cost of ownership will bring cost down even more,” Jennings says.

A new machine for every user

Virtualization has given some districts a level of agility they could never have with traditional computing. “Virtual desktops changed the way we function within our department and how we approach proposing solutions to problems,” says Travis Brown, director of technology at Hutto ISD in Texas.

The technology Hutto is using, VMware Horizon, is based on “snapshot” technology, so every time students log into a virtual machine they’re essentially receiving a new computer. “Once the staff or student logs off of a machine, that machine is destroyed and replaced with a new machine,” Brown says.

This improves consistency among desktop experiences and provides protection that’s not available with traditional computers in terms of virus control. With desktop virtualization, security is enhanced because data and applications are stored centrally and are therefore easier to manage and protect. Management controls which applications are installed, decreasing the likelihood of virus attacks.

The district is using VDI terminals as everyday work machines for staff and students in classrooms, labs, libraries and all campus offices.

And since transitioning, Hutto has seen IT service requests for end-user workstations cut in half. Students and staff can use virtual desktops from almost any device with an internet connection, Brown says.

Brown expects the investment to pay for itself through energy savings alone within three years. The district anticipates saving $200,000 in electricity per year by using thin clients, but Brown declined to give the costs of deployment.

Some of the cost will also be offset by BYOD: Users are allowed to connect to their virtual desktop with their own devices. “The real strength is a nice increase in security,” Brown says, “without a need for an overly complicated environment to properly secure devices.”

Bob Violino is a freelance writer based on Long Island, N.Y.