Eileen Hershman and Terrence Norko of Upper Darby School District rolled out an HP StorageWorks Modular Smar Array to create personal network storage space for students and staffers.

Feb 09 2010

Building an Innovative Infrastructure

Upper Darby School District's network optimization project saves money and resources.


March 2010 E-newsletter

IT Optimization

Ditch the Tape

FAST Rollout

VMware vSphere

Storage Convergence

Earlier this year, when an Upper Darby School District high school student failed to show up for one of her morning classes, her mother, miles away in the privacy of her home, knew it immediately. It was neither a psychic vision nor maternal instinct that led to the discovery; rather, it was a new online student management system that delivers real-time attendance, assignment status and grades that notified the mother of her truant child.

Parents in the Pennsylvania district, located just west of Philadelphia, are able to ascertain details about their child's whereabouts and academic performance (and take corrective action when needed) with the simple click of a mouse. Indeed, just minutes after the mother sent her daughter a text message, she received confirmation on the computer that the student had returned to class.

“There are ongoing, live data points for parents to know exactly what's happening with their kids in each and every class,” explains Jim Wigo, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction. “You can only do this with the new infrastructure we have.”

Optimization Opens Opportunities

The innovative new student management system is among a plethora of technological enhancements made possible by the district's recent network overhaul. Currently executing the second of the project's three phases, Upper Darby is now poised to capitalize on the numerous benefits afforded by the upgrade, which is centered on virtualization and optimization.

“We went from limping to flying,” says an enthusiastic Superintendent Louis DeVlieger, whose district serves more than 12,000 students in one high school, two middle schools, 10 elementary schools and a kindergarten center. “It's a whole new ballgame now. The future is wide open for us.”

This wasn't always the case. Prior to the deployment of the project's initial phase last summer, Upper Darby was struggling to meet the education technology goals outlined within its strategic plan.

“We realized that we needed to re-examine our core infrastructure and how we could best deliver what the district needs in regard to technology,” explains Eileen Hershman, educational research and technology coordinator and leader of the network upgrade project.

Wigo compares Upper Darby's previous network infrastructure to an overburdened tree whose branches were heavy with the “fruit” of too many computers and peripherals. “We continued to add to the branches, but the trunk was becoming too weak and unable to sustain and support them,” he says. “Never once in the past 10 years did we slow down in our acquisition of technology. We simply outpaced ourselves.”

Outdated equipment was also taking a toll on the overburdened network. “The age of the hardware was a major issue,” confirms Terrence Norko, supervisor of network operations for the district. Another threat to network reliability, he says, was the absence of a backup power supply.

“Ultimately, we saw the need to rebuild the trunk,” Hershman explains, “rather than just continue to add peripheral devices.”

Server Consolidation Savings

Bolstering its infrastructure was just the first step. Upper Darby also sought to establish districtwide wireless access, as well as provide students and staff with continuous access to files through network storage and single-user sign on.

The implementation of server virtualization proved to be an ideal vehicle to propel the district onto the fast track of attaining its technology goals. Using the VMware platform, Upper Darby not only consolidated the loads of 16 servers onto just five physical servers, but the district also averted having to purchase 12 additional servers that would have been required to accommodate other strategic objectives.

As part of the network reconstruction, the district also augmented its power supply, installed new wiring, recabled buildings and upgraded all core network switches. All of these measures have paved the way for the final phase of the project (slated for completion this summer), which will facilitate campuswide wireless-network access, full server and network redundancy, and complete support of low-cost thin-client workstations.

Although the $400,000 project is ongoing, Upper Darby School District is already enjoying vastly improved network management and security, as well as the reassurance of having a solid disaster recovery plan in place. The solution has also resulted in a reduction in energy and maintenance costs, as well as significantly eased IT administration management, time and support.

Upper Darby is among a growing number of K–12 school districts that are reaping the rewards of virtualization and optimization. In fact, a recent survey conducted by Citrix  Systems found that K–12 education technology leaders view virtualization solutions as a viable way to deliver applications and resources to students while reducing IT costs – benefits that Upper Darby School District can attest to firsthand.

“We can now take on new applications without buying additional servers or being burdened by the power consumption that new servers would require,” Hershman explains, emphasizing the solution's exceptional return on investment.

Lynda Stadtmueller, senior research analyst for Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan, agrees that virtualization is highly suited to the K–12 market. Because multiple virtualized applications share a single physical server, resources can be better utilized, she points out. Virtualization also enables districts to defer new server purchases and invest in higher-capacity servers that are more energy efficient.

Improving Student Access

Upper Darby's technology makeover continued with the deployment of 175 HP t5145 thin clients within the high school's classrooms, labs and library, with more thin clients planned for the middle school.

“By utilizing client computing – versus $1,100-a-piece laptops – we're cutting our future replacement costs in half,” Hershman reports.

To complement the partnership of virtualization and thin clients, the district also implemented an HP StorageWorks Modular Smart Array with 60 storage enclosures, which facilitated the allocation of personal network storage space for every middle and high school student, as well as all staff members.

“Now, students can access whatever they worked on during the day, even from another place in the building,” Hershman explains. “Any application they use – if they save the file to storage – they will be able to access it again. The process of moving files and homework back and forth is seamless.”

Not only is the solution enhancing the learning process, but for some Upper Darby students, it is their only exposure to technology. Nearly 50 percent of the district's students receive free or reduced-price lunches through the USDA's National School Lunch Program, and seven schools receive Title I schoolwide services.

“For many of our families, this is the only technology experience they will have,” Hershman says, noting that one school within the district has an 86 percent poverty rate.

Furthermore, optimization has bolstered productivity and reduced the need for additional district IT staffing resources. Because new machines can be commissioned in minutes, virtualization drastically reduces the time it takes to launch a new application or supplement capacity, notes Stratecast's Stadtmueller.

The technology also provides the flexibility for IT administrators to quickly and easily reallocate server resources as traffic and other needs change, she says.

“This makes a district more responsive to changing curricula and improves the ability to respond to current events and opportunities,” Stadtmueller reports.

The five technicians who make up the IT staff of Upper Darby School District have certainly noticed the improvement. “Prior to the upgrade, our technicians were always trying to catch up with outstanding tickets,” Wigo recalls. “With the new infrastructure, their role has changed dramatically. They can focus on solving problems, rather than worrying about network issues. We're getting much more bang for the buck.”

“The morale of the staff has improved considerably,” adds DeVlieger, noting that in the past, the lag time to complete repairs on the aging technology often led to frustration.

“We're a very small staff for a district this size,” Hershman says, pointing out that the five technicians are responsible for overseeing some 6,500 devices and assisting 2,000 employees. “They are able to be very proactive now, rather than spending all their time diagnosing network problems.”

Monitoring from Afar

The district's network headaches have been further eased thanks to the installation of an APC InfraStruXure security and environmental monitoring device.

In addition to delivering continuous clean power to all connected equipment, InfraStruXure monitors an extensive range of items within the equipment room, including smoke detection, leak detection, motion sensors, door sensors, air flow, server temperature, power consumption and overall temperature and humidity. In the event of any anomaly, an IT administrator is immediately notified via e-mail.

“We used to be continuously visiting that equipment room,” Norko says. “Now everything can be done remotely. It saves a tremendous amount of time. Things we used to have to do manually we can now do from home after hours. We are set to be operational 24x7, which means parents and teachers can rely on our technology, whether we're in the building or not.”

Perhaps the greatest benefit that virtualization and optimization have provided to Upper Darby is the ability for the district to essentially future-proof its technology.

For example, administrators are considering desktop virtualization “It is something we are exploring, as we are now aligned to implement such a solution,” Norko says.

Optimizing the network has also improved a variety of administrative applications, including the ability to track and measure student progress. “The federal and state education departments are moving toward requiring online accountability by the teachers,” Wigo explains. “If this becomes a mandate, we'll be poised and ready to put that software into action across the board.”

“It's been very exciting to watch,” adds DeVlieger, commenting on the abundant advantages achieved throughout the network transformation.

Setting a Strategy

For other districts considering optimization, Upper Darby administrators have compiled an effective “cheat sheet.” First and foremost, says Wigo, it is crucial to have an overall plan on which all stakeholders agree.

“Our school board understood the importance of the front-end investment for the back-end savings,” he points out. “We also had a very clear vision based on our strategic plan. Every move we considered, we were able to ask ourselves, ‘How does this help our plan?'” 

It's equally important to designate a project manager and support team capable of executing the venture from concept to completion. “You have to bring on the right people who can develop this vision,” DeVlieger emphasizes.

Finally, educators agree, districts must ensure comprehensive staff development. “You can't just go into a program like this and say to teachers, ‘This technology is out there, if you'd like to use it,'” Wigo explains. “You need to set a timeline, do the training, then pull the trigger and say, ‘This is the direction everyone will be going.'”

Administrators at Upper Darby also attribute the project's success to the district's partnership with CDW•G.  “CDW•G best met our needs,” shares Hershman. “They really listened to us and delivered the proposal we were looking for.”

By navigating numerous tight deadlines for paperwork completion, product delivery and equipment installation, the CDW•G team helped ensure a seamless execution.

“This was a very complicated process in terms of project management,” Wigo emphasizes. “We had multiple funding streams for our financing, all of which had to be perfectly coordinated. CDW•G did a wonderful job of working with us.”

Desktop Virtualization Delivers

This maturing technology may be perfectly suited for K–12 environments.

The ever-growing demand to do more with less is forcing schools to explore new ways of getting the most out of their IT infrastructure. One technology garnering high scores is desktop virtualization, which uses a client-server model that separates multiple users' desktops from local storage on their physical machines, storing them instead on a remote central server. This allows users to access their desktops on any capable device, such as a traditional desktop computer, notebook or thin client.

Lynda Stadtmueller, senior research analyst for Stratecast, a division of Frost & Sullivan, says desktop virtualization is ideal for the K­–12 environment, in which computers tend to be a shared resource and reside in a permanent location such as a classroom or library. 

“The virtualized desktop environment makes it easy for IT to deliver the appropriate applications to each student, regardless of where they are,” Stadtmueller says. “With one instance of each application, instead of one per PC or server, upgrades are made easily. The computer used by one student to access research data in a fourth period chemistry lab may be used by another student to do Latin homework in an eighth period study hall.”

Another key benefit of desktop virtualization is that it addresses the challenges many schools face when trying to integrate computer hardware that often consists of a variety of brands, operating systems and processing capacity.  “All of which leads to a very messy and uncontrolled IT environment that pretty much goes away when virtualized desktop applications are introduced,” Stadtmueller points out.

<p>Paul S. Howell</p>