IT Trends | Feature

Virtualization in a 1:1 Laptop Initiative

Center Grove Community School Corp. prides itself in its willingness to invest time and resources into developing first-rate academic programs that emphasize educational innovation. So when the White River Township, IN-based network of five elementary schools, three middle schools and one high school implemented a 1:1 laptop program last year, its technology staff wanted to do better than simply load those computers with software programs and hand them out to students.

"We knew that we'd be adding more students, incrementally, every year to the program," said Julie Bohnenkamp, director of technology, "so we looked closely at how to support the new set of hardware without having to add more personnel."

Research and Rollout
After exploring its options, the district decided that desktop virtualization would fit the bill. Bohnenkamp and her team then spent about six months exploring the concept to make sure it was a good fit for Center Grove.

"We read a lot of journal articles and did our due diligence before making the decision," she said. "Then we brought in several vendors and told them what we were looking for." Criteria included a desktop that every student and teacher could use by simply entering a URL into their Web browser and the ability to repurpose older computers and use them on the virtualized system.

The latter requirement was particularly important, seeing that Center Grove had about 460 computers that were at least four years old and that would cost about $325,000 to replace. And while those existing machines--which are currently being used by teachers district-wide--were "good enough" to run basic word processing and Internet software, Bohnenkamp said the district felt it could extend the life of that equipment by using virtualization (versus installed software).

"You get a longer useful life out of a machine when you virtualize it, since the computer doesn't require any software and everything is handled by the server," said Bohnenkamp. That centralized environment also took some of the pressure off of the district's IT team, which could now conduct complete software installations and even make minor updates at a network level. "It allows us to manage a large number of computers much more easily," Bohnenkamp added.

The combination of 400 netbooks and desktop virtualization was rolled out first to a college preparatory program known as the "Early College Small Learning Community." Students enrolled in the program receive a netbook with a VMware View virtual desktop.

According to Bohnenkamp, students boot up their laptops (at school or at home) and log into the virtualized environment, where they can access the same set of customized tools and network files that they would use in the classroom. "They can work from anywhere on a computer that has the same streamlined look and feel as the one they have at school," she said.

Some Challenges with Virtualization
The switch to a virtualized environment didn't come without challenges. According to Bohnenkamp, one of the biggest hurdles was learning the terminology and processes involved with virtualization--something her team hadn't dealt with in the past. "Even with our IT department having a solid knowledge of computer support, there was still a learning curve," said Bohnenkamp. "We had to adjust to a new set of protocols and figure out how to troubleshoot issues and handle other problems."

Bohnenkamp said the learning curve lasted about a year and and said she's now confident that the department is over the "12-month hump" and comfortable with the new setup. "We've scaled out several other projects since then (the 460 desktops that were virtualized, for example)," said Bohnenkamp. "We feel like we've conquered the challenges, and that we have a good knowledge base now."

Cost Savings: Upfront Costs and Refresh Cycles
In return for those efforts, and for its initial upfront investment in equipment and training, the district has been able to extend the lifecycles of its desktops to seven or eight years (from four or five), while saving about $20,000 annually on energy usage, thanks to an 85 percent reduction in power within its server environment. The district has added no IT support resources and has also avoided about $24,000 in new hardware costs, according to Bohnenkamp.

"The implementation required an investment, but now that we're finding creative ways to leverage it, I'd say we're saving about $100,000 a year in technology costs," said Bohnenkamp, "not to mention the fact that buying brand new computers (instead of repurposing them) would have cost over $300,000."

To other districts looking to reap some of the benefits of virtualization, Bohnenkamp suggested starting with the "big picture" by looking at where you want to be within five years. Do the necessary due diligence by reading up on and talking to districts that have already been through the process, she said, and develop a time line for implementation before jumping into the project.

And instead of taking a tunnel vision approach to the implementation, consider the various ways that virtualization can be implemented across campus. "Look at all of the different ways that you can use it, instead of just focusing on one function," said Bohnenkamp. "That way, you'll be able to leverage your investment and really see the cost benefits."

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