In West Windsor and Plainsboro, N.J., student learning has been liberated from the confines of school buildings and the eight-hour school day. The 10-school district serving the area's 9,500 students shed those shackles with the help of a 700-seat virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) built using the Cisco Unified Computing System and VMware View client virtualization software.
The deployment, completed last summer, was the culmination of a long search by West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District IT staff for technologies that could provide 24x7 access to the district's computing resources. WW-P Network Administrator Harry Doctor believes it was worth the wait.
"Teaching now can be extended far outside the classroom," Doctor says. Thanks to client virtualization, students "have the ability to go to a website, log in with the same password they would use in school, and reach their desktop with all the applications they need – just as though they were at school – but they're at their house or the library."
Seeking the Right Platform
Over the years, Doctor and colleague Rick Cave, WW-P's director of technology, tested a variety of solutions that could give students and staff remote access to network resources. But each option, including using a remote FTP server and VPN connections, had problems.
The breakthrough came in late 2009, Doctor says, when the IT staff began to investigate client virtualization. After trying several VDI options, they purchased a 200-seat VMware View license in January 2010 to virtualize desktops for the IT department, administrators and a few teachers. (The software complemented the VMware solution they had used to virtualize district servers.)
By June, IT was ready to buy a 700-seat View license for the district's two high schools. But expanding the VDI implementation required an upgrade in the hardware on which it would run, plus a platform that could ease the management of the district's increasingly complex hardware, software and network environment.
"A lot of due diligence has to go into a decision like this," Cave says of his team's search for a solution that could meet the district's varied needs without breaking its budget. "School districts tend to look only at products that were built for school districts. That usually means the products are less expensive, but they often don't have all the features you want or the ability to scale with your needs. We didn't want to limit ourselves as we evaluated technologies."
During this period of investigation, Doctor discussed the project with CDW•G account manager Henry Veloza, who put WW-P officials in touch with the company's Advanced Technology Services group. The ATS team met with Cave and Doctor in West Windsor to explore the district's requirements and how different products might fulfill them.
Given the size of the district's VDI installation – and its plans for further expansion – the ATS group recommended Cisco's Unified Computing System, an integrated data center platform that combines networking, computing, storage access and virtualization in a single system. Components include UCS B-Series blade servers and chassis, plus Cisco switching and fabric interconnects and extenders. UCS Manager software provides centralized management that scales as users add blade chassis.
Cisco's integrated approach offers several advantages, says Bari Qureshi, a network solution architect for CDW•G's ATS group. Besides solving "memory and fabric issues that often cause problems in these kinds of architectures, it offers better centralized management than most blade centers," he says. That, he adds, can make life a lot easier for a district.
After careful consideration, Cave and Doctor chose to invest in the UCS solution. The system's unified fabric "provides one central platform to manage all the chassis," Doctor says, "and servers can be managed with policies. With the policies on a server, you can remove or make adjustments to the policy, and the change will take effect after a restart. This significantly reduces the amount of time it takes to configure new or existing servers."
What's more, the Fibre Channel over Ethernet technology that UCS uses eased the migration of the district's 100 terabytes of storage. The IT team spent three weeks deploying UCS and configuring it to support the district's existing VMware View and VMware Server infrastructures.
Doctor says the transition, which was completed by early September 2010, was moderately difficult, but "there's lots of help available." In the future, the design of the UCS platform will make it easier to track problems that may arise. "If you could see most data center cabling, it's a nightmare," he explains. "The streamlined cabling [of the UCS] provides great functionality when you're troubleshooting a hardware issue in the rear of the rack."
Money Well Spent
According to Cave, the project's $225,000 price tag to date has been covered by E-Rate funding. With the VDI installation still in a pilot phase, it's too early to calculate return on investment. But he estimates that client virtualization will extend the life of the district's desktop hardware by two to three years and dramatically cut refresh and replacement costs. The real (and intended) return, he adds, comes from expanding students' and teachers' access to the district's computing resources.
The target audience couldn't be happier about it. "I can be at home and log in to my school desktop to do anything I could do at school," says Kelly Vostal, a business and technology teacher at High School North in Plainsboro. Many of the applications Vostal uses in class are too expensive for students to buy and run on their home computers. But because the tools now can be accessed via virtualized clients, students can work on assignments anytime they want, from any location.
Students lacking home computers can work on their virtual desktops from local libraries, for example, and those with special needs can devote additional time to their lessons. Even absences are no longer the learning disruption they once were. In short, Vostal says, "the system breaks down physical barriers to learning."
Cave says WW-P is upgrading its wireless network to ensure that there's enough bandwidth to expand VDI at the high schools and to extend it to the two middle schools before the current school year ends. He estimates that the district's client virtualization efforts eventually will grow to include several thousand licenses.
Because virtual clients can be accessed from any computing device, Cave sees other opportunities in the district's move to VDI. "By allowing students to bring their own devices to school, WW-P schools could offer one-to-one without buying a computer for every kid," he says. "Technology shouldn't be a special event. You want to get to the point where there's assumed access to resources, and it's not something teachers have to plan for."
The IT team at West Windsor-Plainsboro Regional School District learned a few key lessons from their successful 700-seat deployment of the Cisco Unified Computing System. Network Administrator Harry Doctor and Director of Technology Rick Cave offer this advice to other districts considering client virtualization:
- Take your time choosing technologies, and make sure they support long-term goals. Focus on architecture and features rather than price.
- Use the demos and trial periods offered by manufacturers. Try things out in your district's IT environment before committing to a purchase.
- Carefully and generously size storage requirements before you start your VDI project, because virtualized desktop storage moves data from the PC to the data center. Make provisions for the storage needs of management and for system backup tools, not just for the virtual clients themselves.
- Get the help you need. Both manufacturers and resellers offer technical support that can save time and frustration.
- Refocus on security. Providing computing resources on a 24x7 basis to tech-savvy students requires extra defenses. Fortify your network with data loss prevention, encryption, intrusion detection, malware and other security products as needed.