IT Trends | Feature

Jumping Off the Technology Treadmill

A California school district is turning to virtualized desktops to override its traditional equipment replacement policy.

Charles Kanavel doesn't have anything against exercise, but when his school district found itself on the "technology treadmill" in 2009, he knew it was time to jump off by finding a better way to replace its desktop computers. "Our district replacement policy is 20 percent a year, so every five years we have 100 percent equipment turnover," explained Kanavel, director of technology at Campbell Union School District in San Jose, CA.

During any given year, Kanavel said, the district would spend about $550,000 to replace those desktops. Determined to get off of that "technology treadmill" and save the district some money in the process, Kanavel sought out a better way to manage and replace that equipment. The investigation led him to the idea of desktop virtualization, which uses specialized software to allow multiple users to maintain individualized desktops on a single computer or server.

"I shopped around and looked at the technologies that were out there," said Kanavel, whose list of potential vendors included Citrix, VMware and "a few others that claimed to be virtualization software experts, but who really weren't." In search of a "true" virtualization solution, Kanavel whittled it down to VMware and Citrix, and then selected the latter's XenDesktop with HDX technology.

The district's initial deployment involved existing computers that were less than five years old, as well as older machines whose local hard drives and computing resources were antiquated. "Using virtualization, we literally took the workload off of those older computers, leaving them as nothing more than terminals," said Kanavel. "That's the approach we took in order to save money."

Over the last 12 months, roughly half of the district's desktops were converted over to the virtualized environment. Another 25 percent will be switched over in 2011, with 100 percent of the district computers using virtualization within the next two years. "It's a work in progress at this point, and something we're always involved in," said Kanavel.

The results are already obvious, with the biggest one being the $250,000 that the district saves by not having to replace 20 percent of its total number of desktops every year. "When we buy desktops, we have to get ones that are multipurpose and able to work in a Math class one semester, and an English class the next," Kanavel explained. "We can't just go out and buy the door-buster specials at Costco."

Estimating the typical desktop (inclusive of monitor, operating system and keyboard/mouse) cost at $1,100, Kanavel said the district spends a little less than $500 to equip an existing machine with the backend architecture and pay the licensing fees on the virtualized version. "That's where the $250,000 in annual savings comes from," said Kanavel.

For Campbell Union School District, the challenges of virtualization have been few, although Kanavel acknowledged that some districts could face network-related obstacles when attempting a similar implementation. "We have a flat, unified network here, and I control all the points between our data center and the classroom," said Kanavel. "That's a huge plus, since some [districts] allow their schools to be more autonomous in their construction."

That scenario presents challenges for schools that want to "stream out" the whole virtualization experience but whose network is fragmented. "If one component of that network is incompatible, it will affect the performance," said Kanavel, whose own IT team has benefited from desktop virtualization in ways that go beyond just cost cutting.

"From the support perspective, we were receiving about 60 to 80 tickets a day for various issues," said Kanavel. "As we moved each classroom over to the virtualized environment, those ticket numbers have been reduced to zero." That saves significant time for the IT service personnel, who in the past had to fix each issue on an individualized basis. "Unlike the old days, when we had to go from machine-to-machine," said Kanavel, "many of the issues can be handled via a one-time update."

To other districts that are looking at desktop virtualization, Kanavel said the first step is to look at how the strategy can work across the entire enterprise, and not just in certain instances (like one science lab, for example). Consider the basic building blocks of your district's IT infrastructure, he continued, and factor in the level of support that your staff can provide and the resources it has at its avail.

"To sell an initiative like this to a school board, the cost-cutting [pitch] will only go so far," said Kanavel. "Be ready to present the tangible academic benefits that virtualization will provide, and use specific examples that show how the student experience will be enhanced because of this implementation."

About the Author

Bridget McCrea is a business and technology writer in Clearwater, FL. She can be reached at bridgetmc@earthlink.net.

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