Mike Diaz says the NComputing client virtualization solution has simplified Tangipahoa Parish School System's networking and saved his IT team "a lot of headaches."

Jan 05 2011

See How One School District Improved IT Efficiency Through Client Virtualization

Client virtualization helps TPSS make the most of its existing resources.

An aging electrical infrastructure once limited Tangipahoa Parish School System (TPSS), a 37-school district in rural Louisiana, to fewer than two computers per classroom. Not anymore.

Thanks to client (or desktop) virtualization, the number of student workstations is up an average of 500 percent – from zero physical machines in some learning spaces to clusters of six virtual seats in nearly all of the district's classrooms – without adding a single watt to the electrical load.

With 1,200 newly outfitted classrooms, "7,200 students can be computing at the same time in buildings with electrical systems that are 30 to 60 years old," says Mike Diaz, assistant director of technology at TPSS. "That was impossible before."

Solving electricity-related challenges is just one way districts are using client virtualization to stretch their resources. They're also using it "to extend the useful life of equipment," as well as to reduce an array of IT expenses, says Mark Bowker, an Enterprise Strategy Group senior analyst. "This way, students receive a modern computing experience without requiring districts to invest in hardware upgrades."

Diaz says virtualizing with NComputing also has helped his district simplify networking. A single host machine serves as a workstation while simultaneously feeding five USB-connected thin clients. "We only need one PC and one Internet connection for each classroom," he explains, "so our network isn't complicated" by other equipment.

What's more, virtualization has minimized the administrative obligations of the district's nine-person IT department, which is responsible for 42 buildings spanning an 800-square-mile area. "Instead of frequent incremental updates to Microsoft Windows, we apply a comprehensive update once a year," Diaz says. "This alone saves us a lot of headaches."

In addition, the NComputing solution accommodates the various legacy applications that are typical in school systems. "Although older software may not virtualize, it's still available on the host PC," Diaz says.

With so many physical machines freed up, special-needs classrooms that require dedicated devices have benefited as well. "We've quadrupled access [in those classrooms] by redeploying the older PCs," Diaz says.

Virtualization's rewards extend beyond capital and management cost savings. Because so many of the district's students don't have access to technology at home, the expanded access to computers in the classroom has been a true lifeline, says Director of Technology Vicki Blackwell. "Virtualizing isn't just improving our ability to expose students to computers," she says. "It's been critical to helping [them] succeed."

Anytime, Anywhere Access

Virtualization also gives schools the flexibility to add new tools later. That was critical for Derby Public Schools, where plans for a server virtualization effort ultimately spawned an initiative to virtualize the entire IT environment.

"We wanted the ability to add mobile devices from any platform, without compromising our existing investments in PCs and PC-based applications," says Drew Lane, director of technology for the 12-school district in south-central Kansas. "In addition, we wanted to provide 'anywhere' access because all of our data was locked into our network. That was fine 10 years ago, but not today."

After investigating several options, the district's IT department chose to virtualize using a combination of Citrix Systems products, including XenDesktop and XenApp. The solutions "supported all of our major criteria," Lane explains. Besides being device-agnostic, they offered a "uniform user experience, multiple operating system platforms and anywhere access. Plus, we didn't need to buy new desktop hardware to accommodate the latest applications and devices."

The deployment has proved transformative. "Virtualization has made the hardware platform a moot point," Lane says. "We can choose hardware based on student needs and, using Citrix, run various applications on it." That flexibility provides the district's 7,000 users "with the most appropriate technologies while simultaneously improving efficiencies for IT," he adds.

Derby also is achieving its access goals. "We want students to think of computing devices for education [as] they think of their cable box for TV – as long as they have one, they can get the programming," Lane says.

Such access recently helped bridge the learning gap when budget cuts forced the district to eliminate K–8 summer school programming. "Providing those students with access to familiar applications allowed them to study independently at home over the summer, even without a formal program," Lane explains.

The technology has even enabled the district to support the access needs of a student who is chronically ill and was unable to attend school for a time. "We gave her the ability to see her classmates and teachers despite being homebound," he says.

The cost and time savings are just as impressive. Client virtualization saved the district more than 50 percent in desktop refresh costs and made it possible for Lane's IT team to spend "less time on tedious management tasks," he says, freeing up staff to address long-standing projects and work on future needs. "That wasn't possible in the past."

Rising to the Challenge

At the Harris County Department of Education, which provides services to 26 Texas school districts in the Houston area, client virtualization plays a starring role in the classrooms dedicated to special-needs learners and adjudicated minors.

Like Derby Public Schools, Harris County began virtualizing desktops for the 600 to 700 county students who make up these populations after realizing significant operational efficiencies and total cost of ownership (TCO) gains from server virtualization.

"Desktop virtualization's TCO benefits were very attractive," CIO Jim Schul explains. "Instead of an $800 desktop for each of 300 workstations, we could purchase $400 network appliances. Plus, the applications and data are more secure because nothing resides on classroom machines."

Schul's team chose Quest Soft­ware's vWorkspace for its manageability, affordability, scalability, security and compatibility with VMware (Harris County's server virtualization solution). The latter permits the automatic and dynamic allocation of server resources.

5 to 7 years
The extended refresh cycle that adopters of client virtualization technology have achieved

SOURCE: Enterprise Strategy Group

"If 200 workstations are already logged on to the system and five more log on, the server automatically adjusts for processing, bandwidth and other resources," Schul says. "This allows us to monitor and closely manage demand on our servers."

Reducing the number of physical machines also gives students more workspace and generates significantly less heat, which makes classrooms more comfortable for learning and less expensive to regulate for temperature.

Computer availability is improved too. "Our platforms are more stable," Schul reports. "There are fewer service calls because thin clients don't have moving parts that break down. When there's a service call, the turnaround is faster because one 'master' image serves hundreds of workstations."

Harris County officials are now considering redeploying the 300 physical desktops that were replaced through virtualization, perhaps as thin clients in the county's Head Start centers. "It seems like a good fit for that population," Schul says.

Virtualized Value

To maximize the benefits of client virtualization, schools recommend the following:

  • Closely calculate the total cost of ownership. Be sure to include capital and ongoing mainten­ance requirements.
  • Map out your implementation. Do it on paper and with as much detail as possible.
  • Check networking systems. Is your SAN up to snuff, for example?
  • Test component compatibility. Evaluate everything from mice to software applications.
  • Evaluate video streaming's potential impact on resources. Address bandwidth and latency issues in advance.
  • Plan for 24x7 functionality. If you're transitioning your systems to anytime, anywhere access, be prepared for 3 a.m. support calls.
<p>Sean Gardner</p>

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