IT Trends | Feature

Taking Virtualization All the Way

An all-encompassing approach to virtualization has resulted in cost savings and operational efficiencies for one North Carolina school district. It's also helped the district deliver technology to students in a way that it couldn't before, providing anytime, anywhere access to school computers and learning materials.

Chapel Hill-Carrboro City Schools didn't mess around when it came to server and desktop virtualization. Unlike districts that approach similar implementations on a piecemeal basis, these Chapel Hill, NC-based schools jumped in by virtualizing 20 of its lowest-performing physical servers two year ago.

With one fell swoop, servers that were performing poorly or handling very low capacities were brought up to speed and made into useful components of the district's IT infrastructure. The district, which serves 12,000 students in 19 schools, immediately saw its power bill reduced due to lower cooling requirements, and freed up space that was previously occupied by hulking, physical servers.

Virtualizing Student Computers
Desktop virtualization (where multiple personal computers share the same resources and software) would soon follow, according to Douglas W. Noell, director of IT operations. In search of a way to provide "anytime, anywhere computing" to students, faculty and staff, the district began virtualizing classroom desktops in 2010.

"We've basically been in different stages of both the server and desktop side of virtualization for the last two years," said Noell, "but we've been thinking about it--and deciding how to integrate it into our infrastructure--for the last 10 years."

Desktop virtualization solved another problem for the district, whose older computers were becoming obsolete and in need of replacement. Also on Noell's mind was the need to load both Windows and Mac operating systems on a single unit--something that couldn't be done on older equipment.

"Using virtualization, we've been able to put all of the applications on one machine that allows students access from any platform," said Noell. That move brought other advantages for the district, which suddenly found itself able to use its older equipment to run newer, memory-intensive programs. "We've been able to delay our computer refresh cycle and still have access to the programs," Noell said.

Noell said the desktop strategy kicked off with "just a few licenses to test it out" and figure out, for example, how well the district's older machines could handle multimedia programs in a virtualized environment.

Of particular interest during the testing phase was the virtualized machines' ability to share multiple applications without negatively impacting performance. "When you have a lot of CPUs used up in the traditional computing environment, the only option is to log off and get on a server that's not as busy," said Noell. "With a virtual desktop, you don't run into that."

This year, Noell said, the district will expand its desktop virtualization testing and involve users who would prefer to use memory-intensive programs from their computers, rather than having those programs delivered through a server. "We're already talking to our vendor about upgrading our licenses to include desktop [options]," said Noell, "because we know that eventually a lot of our users will want to be able to have that rich experience from their desktops."

Challenges of Virtualization
The district's IT team has run into challenges on both the server and desktop virtualization fronts, according to Noell, who said computer printers can be a particularly onerous hurdle to overcome. On the server side, he said users are able to access at least 20 printers, for example. The desktop side isn't so easy.

"You can't put printers on a desktop without doing a lot of upfront work," said Noell, who is also challenged by a larger mission: to create a common desktop delivery that students, administrators, and teachers can all use. The district's desktop imaging package generates different background images, he said, but it takes time to set those up, store them, and provision them out to individual users.

"That's the challenge we're working on right now," said Noell, "and we're still early in the testing phase."

Virtualizing Servers
On the server side, Noell said, the district has virtualized 30 machines so far, with just a few high-end servers remaining in their traditional state. "We're really not sure if we'd get better performance from them if they were virtualized," explained Noell. More pressing concerns include deciding the fate of 10 older servers that aren't performing up to speed.

"Virtualizing those work horses would give them new life while eradicating physical servers and the costs associated with them (namely, power and physical space)," said Noell. "We've targeted some funding scenarios for expanding our server virtualization and are looking at whether we have the budget to do all 30 remaining servers at once."

Noell said budget numbers should be top of mind for any district looking to introduce server and desktop virtualization, both of which can produce significant cost savings for schools. And while power savings and the need for less physical space are two key benefits, the fact that the university IT department doesn't have to spend all day setting up and supporting individual pieces of equipment is priceless, said Noell.

"Sure there's a cost investment to get involved with virtualization, and it can take one to three years before you see real savings," said Noell, "but when done right, the payoff on the operational side alone can be pretty significant."

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