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Virtualize Me!

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K-12's burgeoning interest in cost-cutting, productivity-boosting virtualization technologies has vendors starting to take notice.

Virtualize Me!JOHN ABDELMALAK, DIRECTOR OF TECHNOLOGY for the School District of the Chathams, was pretty sure it was time to jump on the virtualization bandwagon last year when he invited Dell to conduct a readiness assessment of his district's servers. When he saw just how little of their capacity was being used, he lost all doubt.

"It was very, very low-- 3 to 5 percent, which is common in K-12," says Abdelmalak. "The servers were really just sitting there waiting half the time."

The Chathams is a district in New Jersey comprising the Chatham Borough and Chatham Township. It serves 3,700 students, who have access to 1,600 school PCs. Dell employed VMware software to monitor the physical servers the district had in place to see what kind of resources they were using in terms of disk I/O, and network, memory, and processor utilization. The software monitored 25 servers for one month, revealing their inactivity.

Abdelmalak is one of many K-12 technology managers who are starting to regard virtualization as a must-have technology for their cash-strapped districts looking to do much more with much less. In response, vendors have begun targeting the K-12 market with specialized virtualization offerings. Dell is one of the most conspicuous, reaching out to potential customers with K-12-specific virtualization programs, and supporting them with targeted online resources.

"Nowadays, when schools begin to look at how to reduce costs and increase productivity," says Mark Weston, education strategist for Dell, "those concerns drive them into a conversation about virtualization."

Dell's approach, Weston explains, is to provide a portfolio of flexible, purpose-built virtualization servers, and storage products that run best-of-breed software from companies such as VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, PlateSpin, VisionCore, Stoneware, and others. Abdelmalak was won over at a virtualization workshop Dell sponsored in February 2008, one of many such sessions the company holds every few months.

"If you are teaching the future systems administrators of the world what it means to have an IT infrastructure and how you support it and run applications in that environment, you can't exclude virtualization from that picture."

"They give us a chance to get together and basically learn about new technologies and how they affect education," he says. "The one I went to on virtualization really piqued my interest."

Then last August, the Chathams district settled on a package that included Dell hardware bundled with VMware software. The district is now in the midst of replacing 30 physical servers with nine Dell host servers running VMware's ESX Server, the company's core hypervisor product. The hypervisor is the most basic virtualization component, a piece of software that "abstracts" the hardware-- the microprocessor, memory, storage, and networking resources-- and by doing so allows you to leverage the hardware to its fullest capacity.

"For us, it's a game-changer," Abdelmalak says of virtualization technology. "The excitement is high in our office because of the power of it. There's nothing that any of us has seen since we have been in this industry that has really revolutionized the server world quite like this."

VMware, the company that started the revolution by reviving interest in technology once relegated to mainframes, has had K-12 in its sights for years. The goal of the VMware Academic Program, says Julia Austin, the company's senior director of research and development, is to provide support both for universities and K-12 districts, with discounted licenses for infrastructure and free software for teaching. VMware says 4,000 institutions are participating in its academic program, including universities and K-12 districts around the world.

Why Virtualize

Virtualize Me!Microsoft has created a virtualization portal that reaches out to the K-12 market with a host of features that show how you can "reach beyond server consolidation to manage your entire IT environment and make the most of your existing infrastructure." The portal is chock-a-block with, among other attractions, white papers, district success stories, and assessment tools, such as the ROI Calculator and the HyperGreen Tool designed to estimate the reductions a virtualization implementation might achieve in kilowatts, money,and carbon dioxide emissions.

"I've seen a major shift in K-12," Austin says. "Tech managers and administrators are becoming savvier in understanding how to leverage this technology. When I started the academic program three years ago, there was a lot of educating to do, even at the university level. But now they're coming to us. They say, 'This is going to save us money, help us operate more efficiently,' and in a lot of cases they say that their students are asking for it."

Which is why VMware also supports education about virtualization technologies. The company sponsors an open community website, GoVirtual.org, that, according to the site, is "devoted to facilitating research and instruction on virtualization-related topics by enabling the sharing of ideas, results, materials, and tools among members of the community."

"Virtualization is fundamental," Austin says. "If you are teaching the future systems administrators of the world what it means to have an IT infrastructure and how you support it and run applications in that environment, you can't exclude virtualization from that picture. It's now critical to the infrastructure."

The ability to consolidate server resources, as Abdelmalak and his team are doing at the Chathams, made virtualization a big hit in enterprise environments. And in K-12 districts, server consolidation is also a popular use of the technology. But unlike the enterprise, early K-12 adopters seem just as interested in application virtualization and desktop virtualization.

Rich or Thin?

"When I came to the district, we had what I like to call the Smithsonian Institution of computers," says Ray Reitz, CTO of Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools in North Carolina. "We had every make and model you could imagine-- 40-plus different models, 20 operating systems-- and it was getting to be unmanageable."

Back in 2001, Chapel Hill-Carrboro City, which serves 11,600 students at 10 elementary, four middle, and three high schools, was set to open a new middle school, and it seemed to Reitz that the project presented an opportunity. "We had to decide between a rich client and a thin client," he says. "We formed a committee, did an analysis, and we decided that a [thin client] solution like Citrix would provide the reliability and access we needed."

Starting with a pilot program in the new middle school, the district implemented a Citrix product then known as the Citrix MetaFrame Server, a remote access application designed to allow desktops and laptops to connect to applications installed on a central server.

"The idea was to make the endpoint universal," explains the district's network engineer, Dave Scott, "where it didn't matter whether we had a Mac or a PC or whatever. We opened up our new middle school with our Citrix environment as its primary computing environment, and then pushed it out to our high schools and other middle schools in the fall of that year. We pushed it out to all of our sites in 2002. In 2003-2004, we upgraded to Citrix Presentation Server 4.0 and we've used that for a couple of years now."

"There's nothing that any of us has seen since we have been in this industry that has really revolutionized the server world quite like this."

The MetaFrame Server became the Presentation Server, and today the latest iteration of the product is called XenApp. Citrix describes XenApp as "a Windows application delivery system that manages applications in the data center and delivers them as an on-demand service to users anywhere using any device."

Tushar Mutreja, director of the education market for Citrix, isn't surprised to see some K-12 districts dipping their toes first into application virtualization.

"Traditionally an application is installed on the device," says Mutreja, whose team is dedicated to generating awareness of the value of virtualization technologies. "You have MATLAB or Reader Rabbit right there on your personal hardware. But application virtualization technology allows you to move away from that physical installation of the application, virtualize it, and put it on your back-end server, so that you have one instance of the application running and being used by multiple students. The app becomes device-independent."

What that means for K-12, Mutreja notes, is less potential for loss. Because the apps live on the server, when a PC is damaged, you just lose the hardware. "You don't have to worry about a student breaking a machine," he says. "The machine has no inherent value, aside from the cost."

Citrix offers special solution bundles for K-12 customers, along with a product licensing program designed for the needs of the education market.

On-Demand Applications

"When people think of virtualization, the first thing they think of is server consolidation," says Chris Lewis. "But when you're a desktop manager like I am, you have a different perspective."

Lewis is the manager of the IT Desktop Management Group for Fairfax County Public Schools, just outside Washington, DC. The district is the largest in the state of Virginia and the 12th largest in the nation, numbering 235 facilities, 189,000 students, 92,000 workstations, 7,500 wireless access points, and an annual budget of close to $2 billion. Lewis oversees the configuration and management of all the desktops and laptops in the district, with a team of about six people at a central office and support partners in the field.

Three years ago at a conference, Lewis' group saw a demonstration of an application virtualization solution called SoftGrid. A collective lightbulb went off.

"We said, 'This is changing the paradigm for how we think about application delivery,'" Lewis says. "The immediate benefit we saw was students and teachers using applications on computers in the building without having to worry about local installations of software."

Since acquiring Softricity, maker of the SoftGrid application virtualization platform, in July 2006, Microsoft markets the SoftGrid technology as Microsoft Application Virtualization, better known as App-V. According to Microsoft, it includes new capabilities designed to support large-scale virtualization implementations across many sites and provides multiple delivery options, including web-based application availability.

That was exactly what Lewis and company were looking for.

"The idea of being able to run any application from any computer wasn't new," Lewis says. "Citrix had been around for a while. But the idea of 'presentation virtualization' was always so server heavy on the back end. It was an expensive solution that required a high quality of service on WAN [wide area network] links. So we saw App-V as a huge advantage, because it didn't rely on all that back-end infrastructure nearly as much. It took advantage of local resources to be able to launch the application, which again gave us very good performance."

Lewis and his team are managing their evolving application delivery infrastructure via Active Directory (AD), Microsoft's directory for Windows environments, which is the native way App-V works.

"The way the system works now," he explains, "my desktop management group has the ultimate responsibility for sequencing the applications, which involves taking the app from the CD or DVD media it comes on and making it into a virtual package available to an App-V client. Our group is also responsible for publishing it, and then we depend on remote resources out in the field, such as teachers and administrators who know the applications better than we do, to actually do the preliminary level of testing. What's great about App-V is that you can publish it to your regular production system without publishing it to the world, because you use AD to limit who has access to it."

Anthony Salcito, Microsoft's general manager for US public sector education, sees the App-V implementation at Fairfax as a good example of the potential of this species of virtualization technology.

"This notion of on-demand delivery of applications and making sure that things are highly available has been a trend that really connects with what virtualization does, from a software virtualization perspective," he says. "Fairfax County is running many, many applications, and the ability to virtualize that software creates an opportunity where testing and the seamless delivery of the application environment is much easier to manage."

At this stage of its development, Lewis sees Microsoft's App-V as a tool for larger districts. "The way that Microsoft has chosen to deploy App-V, it's targeted to its larger customers," he says, "because of the requirement to purchase App-V via the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack (MDOP) licenses. I don't think you'll see as many small businesses getting the same bang as large organizations like ours."

Fairfax hasn't yet fully deployed its new App-V infrastructure, Lewis says, but it's getting there. It's currently running at two schools as a proof of concept. Lewis plans to extend the program this spring into a pilot, which will run through the end of the year and include about 10,000 seats. If the pilot is successful, he and his team will roll it out to the 90,000-plus seats in Fairfax County Schools.

Mature Tech

Mark Lamson, director of technology at Westerly Public Schools, a coastal Rhode Island district, likes the idea of the vendors courting the K-12 districts, but what he considers more important than special programs or even tech support is the vendor's ecosystem.

"Why did we go with VMware instead of Xen or Hyper-V or Virtual Iron, or some of these other players?" he asks. "Because we didn't feel that there would be as many ecosystem partners around the others. VMware had a mature product that was ready to go."

He's referring to VMware's Workstation tool, which Lamson was introduced to about six years ago. "I saw it first at a VMworld conference," he recalls, "and it just seemed to be the most mature, stable technology.

Lamson started at Westerly last August with server and storage virtualization, and then moved beyond servers to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solution from Pano Logic.

VDI is a server-centric computing model that borrows from the traditional thin-client model. But it's designed to give system administrators and end users the best of both worlds. They can host and centrally manage desktop virtual machines in the data center, while giving end users a full PC desktop experience.

Unlike app virtualization, which delivers a remote application to a desktop, VDI takes over the desktop completely. In the so-called desktop delivery model, the operating system, the personal profile, your printer-- everything that is unique to you as a user-- is included. A new virtual desktop is delivered from the back end dynamically every time the user logs in.

Among the things that Lamson hoped to accomplish with his VDI implementation was a "greening of the data center," he says. Pano Logic builds on VMware's ESX hypervisor to deliver a desktop replacement that uses about 3 percent of the power of a traditional desktop.

"Now I want to green the classrooms," he says, "especially the labs, where the numbers really begin to add up. And the savings won't be just from power, but I'm hoping that the ease of management, as well as fewer break-fix calls, will mean that the staffing ratios won't be as painful for our students and staff to deal with."

::WEBEXTRAS ::
For more information on virtualization technology, visit our website at www.thejournal.com. Enter the keywords Virtualization.

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Palo Alto, CA.

This article originally appeared in the 04/01/2009 issue of THE Journal.

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