Virtualization and the Always-On Education Environment

Educators are using desktop virtualization in innovative new ways to enable “bring your own device” (BYOD) benefits for faculty and students. Let’s look at how one IT organization has made the leap to allowing young users to choose their own client devices to gain access to all the work or learning applications and data they need — safely, securely, and with high performance.

The nice thing about BYOD is that you can essentially extend what do you do on-premises or on a local area network (LAN) — like a school campus — to anywhere, to your home, to your travels, 24×7.

The Avon Community School Corp. in Avon, Ind., has been experimenting with BYOD and desktop virtualization, and it has recently embarked in a wider deployment for both this school year.

To get their story, Dana Gardner, principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, interviewed Jason Brames, assistant director of technology; and Jason Lantz, network services team leader, both at Avon Community School.

Listen to the podcast (26:57 minutes).

Here are some excerpts:

Dana Gardner: You’ve been successful with server virtualization, but what made it important for you now to extend virtualization to the desktop?

Jason Brames: One of the things that is important to our district we noticed when doing an assessment of our infrastructure: We have aging endpoints. We had a need to extend the refresh rate of our desktop computers from what was typical — for a lot of school districts typical is about a five-year refresh rate — to getting anywhere from seven to 10, maybe even 12 years, out of a desktop computer.

By going to a thin client model and connecting those machines to a virtual desktop, we’re able to achieve high quality results for our end users, while still giving them computing power that they need and allowing us to have the cost savings by negating the need to purchase new equipment every five years.

By going with virtual environment, the problem that we were looking to solve was really just that — how do we provide extended refresh rate for all of our devices?

We’re located about 12 miles west of Indianapolis, Ind., and we have 13 instructional buildings. We’re a pre-K-to-12 institution and we have approximately 8,700 students, nearing 10,000 end-users in total. We’re currently supporting about 5,500 computers in our district. …

Currently have 400 View desktop licenses. We’re seeing utilization of that license pool of 20-25 percent right now, and the primary reason that we’re seeing that utilization is because we’re really just beginning that phase, with this being our first year for our virtual desktop roll out. We’re really in the second year, but the first year of more widespread use.

We’re training teachers on how to adequately and effectively use this technology in their classroom with kids It’s been very highly received and is being adopted very well in our classrooms, because people are seeing that we were able to improve the computing experience for them.

Jason Lantz: With that many devices, getting out there and installing software, even if it’s a push, locally, or what have you, there’s a big management overhead there. By using VMware View and having that in our data center, where we can control that, the ability to have your golden image that you can then push out to a number of devices has made it a lot easier to transition to this type of model.

We’re finding that we can get applications out quicker with more quality control, as far as knowing exactly what’s going to happen inside of the virtual machine (VM) when you run that application. So that’s been a big help.

A lot of our applications are Web-based, Education City. It’s a lot of graphics and video. And we found that we’re still able to run those in our View environment and not have issues.

Gardner: What are you running in terms of servers? What is your desktop virtualization platform, and what is it that allows you to move on this so far?

Lantz: On the server side, we’re running VMware vSphere 4.1. On the desktop side, we’re running View 4.6. Currently in our server production, as we call it, we have three servers. And we’re adding a fourth shortly. On the View side of things, we currently have two servers and we’re getting two more in the next month or so. So we’ll have a total of four.

Gardner: Now one of the nice things about the desktop virtualization and this BYOD is it allows people to access these activities more freely anywhere. How do you manage to take what was once confined to the school network and allow the students and other folks in your community to do what they need to do, regardless of where they are, regardless of the device?

Brames: We’re a fairly affluent community. We have kids who were requesting to bring in their own devices. We felt as though encouraging that model in our district was something that would help students continue to use computers that were familiar to them and help us realize some cost savings long term.

So by connecting to virtual desktops in our environment, they get a familiar resource while they’re within our walls in the school district, have access to all of their shared drives, network drives, network applications, all of the typical resources that are an expectation of sitting down in front of a school-owned piece of equipment. And they’re seeing the availability of all of those things on their own device. …

A typical classroom for us contains four student computing stations, as well as, depending upon the building size, three to five labs available. We’re not focusing our desktop virtualization on those labs. We’re focusing on the classroom computing stations right now. Potentially, we’ll also be in labs, as we go into the future.

Then, in addition to those student computing stations, we’re seeing those applications where our administrative team or principals and our district-level administrators are able to begin using virtual desktops to access while they’re outside of the district and growing familiar with that, so that whenever we enter into that phase where we’re allowing our students to access from outside of our network, we have that support structure in place. …

We’re also seeing an influx of more mobile-type devices such as tablets and even smartphones and things like that. The percentage of our users that are using tablets and smartphones right now for powerful computing or their primary devices is fairly low. However, we anticipate over time that the variety of devices we’ll have connecting to our network because of virtual desktops is going to increase.

Gardner: How is that hand-off happening? Are you able to provide a unified experience yet?

Lantz: That’s part of phase two of our approach that we’re implementing right now. We’ve gotten it out into the classrooms to get the students familiar with it, so that they understand how to use it. The next step in that process is to allow them to use this at home.

We currently have administrators that are using it in this fashion. They have tablets and are using the View client they connect in and get the same experience if they’re in school or out of school.

So we’re to that point. Now that our administrators understand the benefits, now that our teachers have seen it in the classrooms, it’s a matter of getting it out there to the community.

One of the other ways that we’re making it available is that at our public library, we have a set of machines that students can access as well, because as you know, not every student has access to high-speed Internet, but they are able to go to library, check out these machines, and be able to get into the network that way. Those are some of the ways that we’re trying to bridge that gap.

Technology Integration Group has resources that allow us to see what other school districts are doing and what are some of the things that they’ve run into. Then, they bring back here and we can discuss how we want to roll it out in our environment. They’ve been very good at giving us ideas of what has worked with other organizations and what hasn’t. That’s where they’ve come in. They’ve really helped us understand how we can best use this in our environment.

Gardner: I often hear from organizations, when they move to desktop virtualization, that there are some impacts on things like network or storage that they didn’t fully anticipate. How has that worked for you? How has this roll out movement towards increased desktop virtualization impacted you in terms of what you needed to do with your overall infrastructure?

Lantz: Luckily for us we’ve had a lot of growth in the last two to three years, which has allowed us to get some newer equipment. So our network infrastructure is very sound. We didn’t run into a lot of the issues that commonly you would with network bandwidth and things like that.

On the storage side, we did increase our storage. We went with an EqualLogicbox for that, but with View, it doesn’t take up a ton of storage space with link clones and things like that. So having seen a huge impact there, now as we get further into this, storage requirements will get greater, but currently that hasn’t been a big issue for us.

Gardner: On the flip side of that, a lot of organizations I talk to, who moved to desktop virtualization, gained some benefits on things like backup, disaster recovery, security, and control over data and assets, and even into compliance and regulatory issues. Has there been an upside that you could point to in terms of being a more centralized control of the desktop content and assets?

Lantz: When you start talking about students bringing in their own devices, it’s difficult to monitor what’s on that personally owned device.

We found that by giving them a View desktop, we know what’s in our environment and we know what that virtual machine has. That allows us to have more secure access for those students without compromising what’s on that student’s machine, or what you may not know about what’s on that student’s machine. That’s been a big benefit for us allowing students to bring in their own devices.

Gardner: Do we have any metrics of success either in business or, in this case, learning terms and/or IT cost savings? What has this done for you? I know it’s a little early, but what’s the early results?

Brames: You did mention that it is a little bit early, but we believe that as we begin using virtual desktops more so in our environment, one of the major cost savings that we’re going to see as a result is licensing cost for unique learning applications.

Typically in our district we would have purchased x number of licenses for each one of our instructional buildings because they needed to utilize that with students in the classroom. They may have a certain number of students that need access to this application, for example, but they’re not all accessing it during the same time of the day or it’s on a machine that’s on a fat client, a physical machine somewhere in the building, and it’s difficult for students to have access to it.

By creating these pools of machines that have specialty software on them we’re able to significantly reduce the number of titles we need to license for certain learning applications or certain applications that improve efficiencies for teachers and for students.

So that’s one area in which we know we’re going to see significant return on our investment. We already talked about extending the endpoints, and with energy savings, I think we can prove some results there as well. Anything to add, Jason?

Lantz: One of the ones that’s hard to calculate is, as you mentioned, maintenance or management of this piece and technology, as we all know you’re doing more with less. This really gives you the ability to do that. How you measure that is sometimes difficult, but there are definitely cost savings there as well.

Gardner: I know budgets are really important in just about any school environment. Do you have any sense of the delta there between what it would be if you stuck to traditional cost structures, traditional licensing, fat client, to get to that one to one ratio, compared to what you’re going to be able to do over time with this virtualized approach?

Brames: Our Advanced Learning Center is the school building that has primarily senior students and advanced placement students. There are about 600 students that attend there.

Last year, 75 percent of those students were using school-owned equipment and 25 percent of them were bringing their own laptops to school. This year, what we have seen is that 43 percent of our students are beginning to bring their own devices to connect to our network and have access to network resources.

If that trend continues, which we think it will, we’ll be looking at certainly over 50 percent next year, hopefully approaching 60-65 percent of our students bringing their own devices. When you consider that that is approximately 400 devices that the school district did not need to invest in, that’s a significant saving for us.

Gardner: If you could do this over again, a little bit of 20/20 hindsight, what might you want to tell others in terms of being prepared?

Lantz: One thing that’s important is that when you explain this to users, the words “virtual desktop” can be a little confusing to teachers and your end-users. What I’ve done is taken the approach of it’s no different than having a regular machine and you can set it up to where it looks exactly the same.

When you start talking with end users about virtual, it gets into, OK, “So it’s running back here, but what problems am I going to encounter?” and those sort of things. Trying to get that end user to realize that there really isn’t a difference between a virtual desktop and a real desktop has been important for us for getting them on board and making them understand that it’s not going to be a huge change for them.

Dana Gardner

Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, which tracks trends, delivers forecasts and interprets the competitive landscape of enterprise applications and software infrastructure markets for clients. He also produces BriefingsDirect sponsored podcasts. Follow Dana Gardner on Twitter. Disclosure: VMware sponsored this podcast.

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