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IT Trends | Feature

Virtualization: Trial and Error

Rockdale County School District in Georgia has experienced the benefits of server virtualization, which has--so far in the early phases of implementation--saved on hardware costs and helped IT staff consolidate and cut down server "clutter." But what about server virtualization's little cousin, desktop virtualization? Rockdale's tried it ... twice; but for this district it's proved a less than ideal alternative to full-featured PCs.

Three years ago, the IT team at Rockdale County Public Schools of Conyers, GA was looking for a way to cut down on the costs and hassles associated with the purchase of new servers. Team members also wanted to free up the hours spent maintaining those servers and become a little more "green" by reducing server energy consumption.

"We wanted to stop buying dedicated hardware box servers every time there was a need for one," said Brad Rudisail, network systems manager for the district, which comprises 11 elementary, four middle, and four high schools. "Our goal was to simplify things around here and also reduce our power consumption in the process."

After researching its options, the district decided to test out a concept that was just coming into its own in educational circles at the time: server virtualization. Using specialized software, this technique allows for more than one server to operate on the same piece of hardware at one time.

Rudisail said the district shopped around for virtualization software, found very few choices on the market at the time, and selected VMware as its provider. "We immediately consolidated a number of our servers using the virtualization software," he said. The results so far have been positive.

Thin Clients ... Not So Much
Concurrently, the district tested out desktop virtualization as a way to save money on new desktops and laptops while cutting back on the time spent supporting those machines.

The results were less than impressive, according to Rudisail.

His team made another attempt at desktop virtualization in 2009, but, once again, the results didn't push Rockdale County School District over to a virtualized desktop environment.

"We saw some potential benefits, but the upfront costs of the virtualized computers aren't that much less than we'd pay to buy dedicated PCs," explained Rudisail.

And while the virtualized desktops "do add fewer maintenance costs and power savings," they don't solve the district's most pressing issue right now: how to replace an aging PC fleet on a tight budget.

"The virtualized models just don't save us enough money upfront, and haven't helped our aging fleet problem," said Rudisail.

Finessing the Virtualized Servers: Budget Constraints and Training
Budgetary issues have also put constraints on the district's server virtualization plan, which has progressed at a much slower rate than Rudisail would have liked.

"The bottom line is that we haven't been able to grow the server virtualization implementation as much as we wanted due to the budgetary constraints of the last few years," said Rudisail. Those constraints have prohibited the district from investing in the backend storage requirements.

"We basically hit full capacity, and didn't have the money to go out and buy additional storage," said Rudisail, whose team revisited some of the servers it virtualized first to see if more capacity could be eked out of those early setups. In certain cases, for example, the team "unvirtualized" some of the servers that were taking up a great deal of space, said Rudisail, and replaced them with other servers that didn't need that much capacity (thus freeing up more space for additional servers).

In addition to the capacity restraints, other virtualization-related issues that Rudisail and his team have dealt with include the learning curve associated with the initial configuration. However, once hurdled, he said, the curve flattens out and actually results in less time spent maintaining the virtual servers, compared to the traditional style. "Once everything is in place," said Rudisail, "the system pretty much runs on its own."

The Rockdale County School District has yet to examine the full return on investment being delivered by its virtual servers, although Rudisail said that two of the biggest benefits include lower power usages and "less clutter." The district has also seen some direct savings as a result of not having to purchase traditional server hardware.

With Phase I of its server virtualization complete (and held back only by the lack of adequate backend storage, as dictated by budgetary issues), the district is now looking to expand the program. "We want to buy a new backend storage system by the end of the year," said Rudisail, "and then revamp and revitalize our server virtualization implementation."

Rudisail said that the district is also considering different virtualization software, including Microsoft. He advised other districts to "shop around" before selecting a software provider, since there are many more on the market today than there were three years ago.

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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