FEATURE | virtualization

Taking the Plunge: Districts Leap Into Virtualization

Virtual computing can take some getting used to. Three districts that have made the leap from conventional desktop PCs offer firsthand advice.

No one likes change, especially if it means leaving behind the comfortable trappings of traditional desktop computing for a lean, alien virtualized environment. It’s a move that requires taking leave from the status quo and shedding everything familiar to you about IT to make room for a great unknown.

We spoke with three districts that have made the conversion to virtual computing to learn about their experiences: What prompted them to make the move, and what were their objectives? Which obstacles prove most challenging, and would they do anything differently in hindsight? Find out the answers along with other important observations, tips, and caveats from the technology leaders who were out in front of these decisive moves into desktop computing’s new frontier.

Who: Byron Union School District
What: Deployed 600 Wyse Technology thin clients
When: 2009
Why: To provide computers in every classroom

When Byron Union School District’s then superintendent announced last year that he wanted to put technology in the hands of his nearly 1,700 students by installing four computers in every classroom and creating four labs housing 36 computers each, Willie Marlin, network and student data technician, realized that the most cost-effective and time-efficient way to carry out the mandate was to go virtual.

Marlin went on a search for the right virtual solution to replace the hodgepodge of PCs the small, northern California district had collected over the years, all running different versions of the Windows operating system and many of which simply did not function. “I had teachers who would say, ‘Sometimes we go in to the computer lab and we have a group of kids around one computer, because that’s all we can get to work,’” Marlin says.

In researching his options, he determined that cost could not be the end-all consideration. “The whole context of saving money sometimes burdens a school,” he says. “Saving money doesn’t necessarily give you the best products.”

Be sure to view the Virtualization To-Do List at the end of this article

Or the best service, he found. Other vendors were offering big price cuts on certain thin client solutions, but only on discontinued product lines they would not be supporting going forward, which would be a problem for Marlin, a one-man IT team. Marlin settled on Wyse Technology, a San Jose, CA-based provider whose long-term support he felt outweighed the cost savings offered by the competing vendors.

“Wyse has been in the industry for a remarkable number of years,” Marlin says. “It has been doing thin client setups overseas forever.”

Who: Byron Union School District
What: Deployed 600 Wyse thin clients
When: 2009

In the summer of 2009, Marlin deployed 600 of the company’s thin client units. He knew it would be important to ease the load of the virtual computing environment on the district’s local area network (LAN), so he installed three VMware ESX host servers in each of the district’s buildings rather than rely on a central data center to handle all of the traffic. Those host servers run the thin clients locally at each site and only communicate with the district’s main connection broker via Microsoft’s Active Directory once per session.

“The only thing that’s coming across my LAN is the authentication that occurs at log-on,” Marlin says. “Once the authentication hits, it replicates back to the servers at the site and the connection becomes local. The local server populates the desktop. And I can manage everything through a VMware View Client from the computer in my office. Whatever changes I make through the View Client replicate over to the VDI [Virtual Desktop Infrastructure] and then pass through the connection broker for delivery to the local servers. I can manage all 600 Wyse units and all 1,800 Active Directory accounts from my computer—physical or virtual—using RDP [Remote Desktop Protocol].”

Marlin got a nice assist from his district’s decision to contract IT consultant ENS to oversee the transition to virtualization. The amount of research on infrastructure and networking he would have had to do before launching a thin client solution would have kept him from addressing any of his real-time IT issues. The relationship Marlin developed with the company’s consultants was key to the success of the project.

“They would come out to our building to go through the networking infrastructure and revamp it as needed,” he says. “We’d go through every aspect of the project and ask, ‘Is this going to be the best way to do this? Will this be the best process?’ They basically helped me set up the system, and in the setting up of the system I was able to gain the knowledge that I needed to manage it.”

The greatest challenge Marlin had with the district’s faculty and staff was adapting from working on a “computer” to working on a “desktop.” For example, if a student has problems logging on to a thin client device, the issue is most likely a password failure, not a hardware issue.

“Teachers will say, ‘I tried logging Timmy on to these five machines and none of them are working,’” Marlin says. “They think that none of the computers are working. Well, there’s nothing wrong with the device; another kid could go sit at the unit and log on. As soon as I go into Active Directory and reset Timmy’s password, he can log right on to those same devices.”

Marlin has also seen how how quickly misinformation can spread among the faculty and staff. “I had a couple of teachers tell me that they didn’t want a thin client as a replacement to their PC because they heard you can’t print from it,” he says. “Well, I use my thin client device all day long, and I print from it constantly. It’s just connected to the printer via the network rather than a cable.”

Marlin has taken to attending staff development days so he can field questions and address concerns about the devices from the teachers as a group. “The biggest complaint I’ve heard is that you can’t play DVDs or CD-ROMs from them. So many textbooks now come with video-based supplemental curriculum. To address this, I’ve created a website for video storage. The teachers can just log in to the website from their devices, select the video they want, and watch it on the overhead projector.”

Marlin says that most of the growing pains have been eased, and virtualizing has surpassed what he expected of it. The district was able to add a technology class as an elective for sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-graders as a result of the initiative because, he says, “the technology is there, and it’s working.”

Who: Little Chute Area School District
What: Installed Pano Logic “zero clients”
When: 2009
Why: To trim refresh costs; save energy

At Little Chute Area School District in east central Wisconsin, the catalyst behind a virtualization project was the approaching end of a five-year, $1 million referendum that funded technology improvements in the district. Diana Sepe, the district’s network systems specialist, sought a way to reduce the cost of refreshing 200 PCs once the referendum expires in 2012.

Sepe bypassed the thin client alternatives she saw in favor of purchasing the “zero client” solution from Redwood City, CA-based Pano Logic. Unlike thin client devices, Pano zero clients have no CPU or memory, no operating system, no drivers or software, and no moving parts, which means they are highly energy efficient. The Pano unit is simply a small box through which peripheral input devices—a keyboard, mouse, VGA display and audio output, and USB peripherals—connect and communicate to a virtualized Windows desktop operating system running on a server in the district’s data center.

The district was in the midst of a concerted energy conservation effort, and in comparing the thin client and the zero client, Sepe was impressed by how much less power the zero client draws.

“That dovetailed with the initiative the district was already taking,” she says, “so the technology department got to do its part to contribute to the energy savings. The wattage our devices in our labs consumed went from 250 watts for each of our old PCs to 3 watts for each Pano device. As a bonus, it’s a plug-and-play device. I don’t have to maintain anything. I don’t have to worry about firmware updates or moving parts.”

The Pano zero clients communicate with powerful VMware servers located in the district’s server room. Although these beefy servers allowed Sepe to consolidate her older servers into fewer units, they didn’t have much of an effect on her energy usage.

“There was a shift in power consumption because this type of solution can’t be run on your typical server that’s just designed for accessing files or e-mail,” Sepe says. “The activities run on these VMware servers are very CPU- and memory-intensive. Even though I was able to replace about every three servers with one high-end VMware server, my load stayed about the same across the board, in terms of the devices that are running in the server room.”

Sepe credits Camera Corner Connecting Point, the reseller Little Chute worked with to purchase its Pano devices, for helping the district secure a Wisconsin Focus On Energy grant to help in the transition to a virtual solution. “They really did all of the legwork,” Sepe says. “All of the calculation of how many dollars and how many kilowatt hours were saved—that all came from them. They did a fantastic job for us.” The district used the grant to replace all of its CRT monitors with LCD flat-panel displays, which increase the energy efficiency of its computing environment even further.

The implementation, of course, had some rocky early moments. Sepe wouldn’t mind a couple of do-overs. “The two things I’d do differently next time,” she says, “is I would have done a lot more prep work with the teachers to give them a better understanding of the benefits we see on the back end—the benefits they don’t typically see—before rolling out the devices, and I would have done a smaller pilot to work out the bugs and test the infrastructure.”

When Sepe first installed the zero clients in her district, the method by which the server’s RAM was allocated to the virtual desktops caused a lag in the amount of time it took for students to log in. “A 30- or 40-second lag is no big deal from a businessperson’s perspective,” Sepe says, “but when you have 30 third-graders waiting for their desktops to appear, that’s a lot of time for them to stay seated.”

The slow login was the type of issue that would have been quickly noted and fixed during a smaller pilot—a simple adjustment to the RAM allocation solved the problem—but with so many of the devices already in use, Sepe says, “I think that gave some teachers a bad taste in the beginning.”

The teachers also needed to get their heads around what Sepe acknowledges is “a paradigm shift” in computing habits. “Before, everything ran on that PC right in front of them,” she says. “They could see the lights blinking and they knew that it was working and their data was right there, and now all that stuff happens underneath the covers, so to speak. So that whole thought of how they’re seeing their screen when there’s not really a PC there has been a challenge for the staff—and the students—to grasp.

“We had a couple of secretaries who said, ‘When are we going to get some training on how to turn this on?’ It is on. It’s always on. You just move the mouse, you wake it up, and there it is.”

Who: Hudson Falls Central School District
What: Implemented ClassLink; purchased 1,800 HP thin clients
When: 2000 (ClassLink), 2007 (HP)
Why: To eliminate the need to manage every desktop

After joining Hudson Falls Central School District in 1996 as its director of education technology, Greg Partch set himself down to attend to one of his first big tasks— develop a technology plan. His goal was to create a 1-to-1 ratio between computers and students—roughly 2,400 in the Fort Edward, NY, district—but he knew from his experience in private industry that to do so with traditional PCs would require an IT team that public education couldn’t financially support. Partch found a solution inspired by his stint as the manager of information systems at Scott Paper, where the company’s VPN software, from Citrix Systems, allowed sales reps out in the field to log in to the public network, start a Citrix session, and input their orders via a mobile device.

Virtualization to-Do list

Make Use of Thumb Drives. Although they lack CD-RW drives, most thin client devices have USB 2.0 ports. Thumb drives allow students to access their files on computers outside the local area network. Little Chute Area School District (WI) now includes thumb drives on its students’ back-to-school shopping list.

Categorize Users by Desktop Image. Thin client management software allows administrators to create different desktop images for different organizational units, or “classes,” of users. By grouping login accounts into classes based on their software needs instead of creating a unique desktop image for each user, administrators can greatly increase the efficiency and flexibility of their system. “You can break it down by grade, but we even break it down by class,” says Greg Partch, director of education technology for Hudson Falls Central School District (NY). “Only the students enrolled in the CAD [Computer Aided Design] class need that software, so we create a specific class for them that includes the CAD application. What’s really great is that they can access that software on whatever device they log in from. They’re no longer restricted to working on CAD in the CAD lab.”

Over-allocate your RAM. For faster performance on the front end, Diana Sepe, network systems specialist at Little Chute Area School District, suggests over-allocating your server’s RAM, which is shared by the virtual desktops. “The nature of RAM is that high amounts are only needed in short bursts,” she says. “If you stick to your actual RAM, you might only be able to allocate, say, 512 MB of RAM to each desktop, which puts a limit on its performance. If you allocate 1 GB of RAM to each unit, even if it’s more than exists on your server, not every unit will be accessing that RAM at the same time. The machines that need that burst can take it from machines that are idle, greatly improving your system’s performance.”

Designate desktop privileges. Tired of students changing the standard wallpaper on your school’s desktop computers to images of Justin Bieber? In thin client computing, virtual desktop images can be designated as “persistent” or “non-persistent.” Set up the students’ accounts to access non-persistent desktops, so any changes they make during the session are reset once they log off. Associate teacher and administrator accounts with persistent desktops to enable both parties to download programs and make changes to their desktop appearance as needed. With a persistent desktop, those changes will appear intact when they log in to their next session.

Archive student work. With a virtual desktop solution, students’ files are saved to their own designated folders on the server, rather than to a desktop or a CD-RW. This creates an easy, automatic archive for student work. Willie Marlin, network and student data technician for Byron Union School District (CA), says his district has preschoolers and kindergartners who log on to the system and save documents to the server. “They’ll carry those documents with them in their user account throughout their time in our district. When it’s time for them to move on, we can transfer all of those files that they created and saved—all of their work—to a flash drive. I like to think of it as a virtual backpack.”

“It was one device using one application that was on a server,” Partch says. “At the time, I started thinking, ‘How do you provide not one application but 50 different applications, and then manage those?’”

He decided to research it and discovered ClassLink, a server-based application manager designed specifically for the education market. Partch formed an ongoing relationship with the company in 2000. “I looked at the product, and I saw the ease of installation,” Partch says, “and that there were no moving parts, no CD drive, no diskette drive. It was basically a dumb terminal hung onto the network. There was nothing to fix. I didn’t need a large staff.”

Over the years, as its legacy PCs died out, the district replaced them with thin client devices. “We turned everything that was fat into skinny,” Partch says. In 2007, the district made a major upgrade, purchasing 1,800 Hewlett-Packard 5540 thin clients. That covered placing up to eight in each classroom in the district’s five buildings and an average of 25 in its 15 computer labs—with login, applications, printing, and desktop images managed through ClassLink.

By adopting server virtualization and later installing the HPs, Partch was able to reduce his load from 70 physical servers down to 16 HP Blade virtual servers. The thin clients communicate over a Cat-6 connection with eight HP Blade Windows 2008 servers located in the district’s high school. To ensure that the network would always be available, Partch installed a redundant backup facility in the district’s middle school that houses eight additional HP Blade servers, which mirror each transaction that takes place on the main servers. In a virtual computing environment, where data is stored in a centralized location rather than on individual PCs, the redundant site also serves as a real-time backup center.

“We do transactional backups where every transaction that occurs, even if it’s a kid downloading an MP3 file, gets copied over to the redundant site,” Partch says. “If something were to happen to the building that houses the main servers, the asset isn’t the hardware, or even the software—it’s the data. The data is what needs to be protected. I can go buy more thin client devices or servers. I can’t replace the data.”

Partch’s 10-year relationship with ClassLink has put Hudson Falls at the forefront of innovations in virtual client management. Recently, the district has been working with ClassLink and the research organization Edvantia on a study involving the vendor’s Inquiry software, which collects data each time a student logs in to the ClassLink virtual computing environment. Administrators can see what type of device students logged in from (ClassLink allows users to access a school’s network from home), what time they logged on, what applications they executed, and how long they spent using each application. The purpose of the new study is to combine that data with the data stored in a school’s student management system to examine the correlations between the use of technology and student performance and attendance.

Partch says the software enables him to run reports based not on student usage but on application usage. “Teachers say they need certain pieces of software, so we buy it for them,” he says. “Without having data, you can’t know if the software they’re requesting is actually being used. Now I can run reports that tell me which applications are being used and how often. I saved $40,000 just by discontinuing the licenses for the applications that weren’t being accessed. Nobody even noticed the software was gone.”

Another noticeable change Partch describes is in teachers’ attitudes toward this newfangled computing system. The reason for that, he says, is teachers are thrilled to be freed from maintenance issues and are thankful for the consistency of the virtualized environment.

“They would go into a lab and inevitably there would be three, four, or five machines out of 30 that would have problems, that would be missing an application, or there would be something wrong with the OS. And they would have to spend time trying to fix it. They don’t do that anymore. When they walk into the lab, every one of those devices is going to behave and look exactly like the one sitting next to it. They are no longer technicians. They go in and teach. They love it.”

To districts still on the fence about adopting a virtual solution, Partch advises them to push ahead. “Don’t go with the flow,” he says. “Only dead fish go with the flow. Desktop virtualization is proven, it works, it’s well documented, and schools that aren’t doing it are missing the boat. Everybody will be doing desktop virtualization within time. Embrace it.”


Camera Corner Connecting Point: cccp.com

Citrix Systems: citrix.com

ClassLink: classlink.com

ENS: ens-inc.com

Hewlett-Packard: hp.com

Pano Logic: panologic.com

VMware: vmware.com

Wyse Technology: wyse.com

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of THE Journal.