Stretching IT Resources

The Lowdown on Virtualization

A California elementary school is experimenting with virtualization in one of its labs.

The idea of not having to purchase, run, and maintain multiple desktop computers in the classroom--yet still be able to accommodate every student with computing power--is attractive for K-12 schools. Who wouldn't want to be able to win the technology race by purchasing a layer of software that resides between the hardware and the operating system and allows teachers to run several "virtual machines" on a single piece of hardware?

Some schools are already experimenting with the process using virtualization, which allows organizations to pool and share IT hardware and software and provides centralized management over technology assets and resource sharing. The term, which applies to everything from desktops to servers to software, was introduced in 1985 when Intel created the Virtual 8086 Mode architecture for machines running Windows.

The benefits of virtualization are fairly straightforward. They include server consolidation (the ability to increase server power with buying more hardware); energy conservation; simpler IT resource management; less time required to back up data; and space savings.

Virtualization also has limitations that could make K-12 schools more thoroughly review the option before tossing those desktops into the recycling bin. Administrators and IT staff at Donald L. Rheem Elementary School in Moraga, CA, are bumping into a few of those challenges as they strive to create a virtualized environment at the 350-student school.

Elaine Frank, principal, said the school has adopted virtualization as part of its quest to reduce technology costs and battle a shrinking budget. "Acquiring hardware and software, and then maintaining it over time, is expensive," said Frank, whose team launched its virtualization strategy by shopping around for a virtual desktop option to use in the school's new technology lab.

Working with NComputing, Rheem Elementary implemented Microsoft's MultiPoint Server 2010 (WMS) operating system and a USB-connected virtual desktop kit. Up to 10 students share a single computer, with each using a Windows 7-based system. Students use their own monitors, keyboards, mice, and headphones, but their virtualized "stations" are connected to a desktop kit, which is attached to the shared computer via USB cables.

"This model allows us to have multiple students using computers that previously just one child could use at a time," said Frank. "The power of a single computer is now spread across 10 students who can do research online, use word processing software, and do anything else that they'd normally do on a PC."

Since opening the new lab in February, Frank said, the benefits of virtualization have included increased access to computers for its students and lower energy costs.

Currently in the pilot phase, the new facility serves as an adjunct to the school's primary labs (which is equipped with traditional computers). "Our fourth grade students are using the new lab almost daily," said Frank, "and they love it."

While the new virtualization hardware and software are meeting expectations so far, Guy Seltzer, Moraga School District's network administrator, said the system could present challenges in the future. "First of all, because the users are sharing a single PC and CPU, any resource-intensive activities will be out of the question," said Seltzer. "We didn't do any real 'stress-testing' of the system because the educational software we're running isn't that resource-intensive."

But what happens when multiple users want to view online videos or handle some other resource-intensive tasks at once? That's when virtualization's limitations could rear their heads, according to Seltzer. "The whole system would start to get sluggish and work slowly," he said. "Even with additional bandwidth, we'd still be dealing with slower processing at the user level."

Frank said such limitations could be managed by the teachers themselves, who--much like they would in a classroom--direct and oversee the students' computer activities. "It could be as simple as putting a red cup on top of the computer that's running video, to make sure the system doesn't get [overloaded]," said Frank. "It's also about helping kids understand that this is a shared experience that has to be managed properly."

Frank, who estimated that the school is saving five-sixths of the energy and equipment costs associated with the computer hardware (based on the idea that six students are now plugged into a desktop that was previously only used by one child), said the financial benefits of the new lab outweigh those challenges.

Whether virtualization will pay for the K-12 space remains to be seen. Although the concept is 25 years old, the idea of using "dummy" terminals in lieu of fully enabled, individual PCs is only now gaining ground in schools in the United States. With budget cuts forcing institutions to do more with less, and with technological advancements making virtualization itself more viable, the option could make more sense in certain situations.

Seltzer said predicting virtualization's long-term cost savings is difficult, namely because the schools still have to buy and maintain servers, hardware and software licenses. "At this point, there's not a big difference in the maintenance of desktops versus these multi-point servers," said Seltzer. "I still have to install software, implement security measures and manage users the same way that I would with the desktops."

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