Now that he has virtualized desktops at two high schools, Richie Gann of Fort Thomas Unified Schools in Arizona plans to do the same for the district's elementary school.

Apr 05 2010

Fort Thomas United Schools Finds Thifty Ways to Upgrade Classroom Desktops

Virtual desktop technology provides a rural school with a more cost-efficient way to deliver applications.

Virtual desktop technology provides a rural school with a more cost-efficient way to deliver applications.

By Mark Rockwell

In a region that's notorious for brutal desert heat, it's no small blessing that the computer labs at Fort Thomas Unified Schools in rural eastern Arizona are a lot cooler these days.

Virtual desktop technology provides a rural school with a more cost-efficient way to deliver applications.

In a region that's notorious for brutal desert heat, it's no small blessing that the computer labs at Fort Thomas Unified Schools in rural eastern Arizona are a lot cooler these days.

More comfortable classrooms aren't the most important benefit from the district's deployment of a Lenovo Secure Managed Client (SMC) virtualized desktop. But they are a welcome plus, says Richie Gann, IT director for Fort Thomas schools.

Gann applied the Lenovo SMC to about 100 Lenovo M58p desktops with Intel's vPro processing technology in computer labs in two high schools and linked it to an SMC Storage Array Appliance. The system lets him eliminate the hard drives on the lab computers yet retain their computing power.

The hard drives from those individual computers are now controlled from a central point under Gann's management. Without the hard drives and the fans that cooled them, the computers generate less heat, so the rooms they occupy stay cooler and the building's air conditioning is less burdened.

Bridge the Gap

Fort Thomas Unified Schools is located in a starkly beautiful, secluded section of the state. It's a two-hour drive from Phoenix and three hours from Tucson, set alongside the rocky, rugged landscape of the San Carlos Apache Reservation. Fort Thomas draws 97 percent of its students from the reservation, says Gann. For the majority of students, the computers in the schools are the only ones accessible to them. Additionally, high-speed Internet connections on the reservation are almost nonexistent.

Virtualization technology can help bridge the digital divide, especially in areas where home computers and high-speed broadband aren't common, says Martha Young, principal and CEO of Nova Amber, a Golden, Colo., consultancy that specializes in business process virtualization.

Favorable ROIs from virtual desktops will come from early and well-documented implementations that result in reduced endpoint hardware costs, lower operational costs and increased employee productivity – all with minimal impact to the data center.

Source: Enterprise Strategy Group

“There are a lot of soft metrics around virtualization technology,” says Young, who believes virtualization can level the playing field a bit for school systems that aren't near metropolitan areas or that don't have extensive IT resources.

For instance, school districts can distribute applications centrally instead of installing them and licensing them for individual computers, she says. “Schools in less wealthy districts can compete better” using virtualization, she adds.

If a school virtualizes 100 computers in a lab, it may not have to license every program for each computer, instead buying licenses for the average number of students per classroom, she says. “It provides similar benefits for hardware. Netbooks and tablets are extremely cost effective for budget-constrained districts.”

Different Environment

Lenovo's SMC software virtualizes the front end rather than the back end, says Fort Thomas's Gann. When the computer is booted, the only piece that's virtualized is the disk IO. When you write something on the local hard disk it goes to the storage appliance, and the rest of the processing takes place on the client machine, he explains. On a terminal in a more traditional virtual environment, servers in a server closet support user applications on the back end, he says.

Those kinds of savings are important for any school district. Like most other school systems, IT budgets are lean and staffing is scarce. Economy and functionality have become especially important for IT operations at schools.

Gann considered other virtualization technologies, such as VMware and NComputing Solutions, but he says those products wouldn't support some audio applications he was running in the schools' computer labs.

“We have a lot of multimedia applications,” he says. “The audio didn't work like we wanted it to in a terminal services or VMware environment.”

Gann says another issue is that in more traditional desktop virtualization, the computers are basically dumb terminals with no computing capabilities, he says. However, with the Lenovo software, Gann uses actual computers with processors and memory, but the hard disk is virtualized.

“You basically have a working computer at your desk,” he says. “It's a regular computer, minus the hard disk.” This feature gives him some peace of mind because if the district could no longer afford PCs, upgrading the existing machines would only require adding $100 hard drives – a much less expensive option compared with spending hundreds of dollars on new PCs or even low-cost netbooks.

Gann wants to expand his SMC environment in the coming years to the district's elementary school, where there are plans to put 15 computers in every classroom. The building isn't a new one, and power outlets into classrooms aren't plentiful.
Virtualizing the applications (thus eliminating some of the power requirements from the fans and disk drives in each computer) might let him squeeze more computers into each classroom.

Retaining the physical hard drives on individual computers can be a needless expense and drive up costs with no real benefit for users, he says. “In our labs, the students move around from machine to machine, so what good is a hard drive on a particular machine?”

Hit the Highlights

SMC's virtual desktop hits these technical and financial hot buttons:

  • Offers single-image technology. IT managers can host a single PC image with a common operating system and applications in a central location for all SMC-enabled desktops to access.
  • Preserves full PC computing. Desktops maintain system processor and graphics, including a full Windows experience.
  • Reduces lifecycle costs. Lenovo estimates that large enterprise users in North America spend about $120 a month to fully manage a PC, taking into account onsite troubleshooting, help-desk support and other management costs. It also estimates that using the SMC solution will help such expenses drop to as low as $70 per PC per month.

Think Again

The Lenovo Secure Managed Client (SMC) requires IT managers to think differently – particularly when it comes to hard drives.

“With this technology you have to think about what the application is doing,” says Richie Gann, director of technology at Fort Thomas Unified Schools in Arizona. “You have to know when it is writing to the hard drive.”

At Fort Thomas, Gann set up group policies to have all student data available on the network, through network share or SharePoint. “All the disk IO is already on the network,” he says.

Security functions also need to be considered. Antivirus software can be an issue, Gann says. It kicks on when a computer is first turned on to do a scan. While that doesn't seem like a big deal for a single computer, it becomes problematic when 100 computers turn on at one time and they all try to do a disk scan – all accessing the storage array and doing a disk IO.

“Once we thought about that, we figured things out in about five minutes,” Gann says. “We fixed the problem by disabling startup scans in the antivirus program and optimized other settings in Windows that cause unnecessary searches of the hard disk. We didn't think about that to begin with, but now we understand,” he concludes.

<p>Steve Craft</p>