September 2011 E-newsletter
From Virtual Desktops to the Cloud
Sycamore Community Schools doesn't think small when it comes to providing students, faculty and staff with the latest technology. The Illinois school district, which serves only about 3,800 students, has delved into virtual desktops just as enthusiastically as many larger districts.
The district is deploying 1,500 virtual desktops that run Citrix on Wyse Technology thin terminals. By the end of the 2011–2012 school year, all 1,500 units and about 85 percent of the district's applications will be fully virtualized, says Sean Larson, the district's network administrator.
"Basically, we're offering our own cloud, with the goal of offering anywhere, anytime access for students and staff to access the applications they need to complete assignments, communicate with students or develop lesson plans," he says.
That means delivering applications not only on thin clients, but via any device that students, faculty or staff want to use, including notebooks and tablets. Regardless of the device, users will be able to log in to the district's remote website and access the applications they need.
"If a staff member at one of our elementary schools wants to access a specific application to figure out how to integrate it into a lesson plan, they can do it anywhere, from any device, as long as they have an Internet connection," Larson explains.
The district will stop short of creating a full desktop as a service scenario, where devices can access their entire desktop from outsourced cloud applications.
"If we have most of our applications virtualized and available through our cloud, I'm not sure I see the case for going further," Larson says. "Everybody will have their own personal device at some point, and they can access whatever they need."
Larson's reluctance to move to outsourced client computing in the cloud is one that others share, but Bob O'Donnell, vice president of clients and displays for research group IDC, believes that all organizations will be cloud-ready eventually.
"It's a natural next step from desktop virtualization, because it provides the flexibility users need, and the customer service that organizations want to provide for users who no longer have one primary computer to work from, but several devices," O'Donnell says. "We'll get to the point where users will essentially log in to a Windows desktop in the cloud hosted through something like VMware, Citrix or Microsoft."
A Long Journey
Giving users the ability to work anywhere, anytime, from any device was one of the drivers that led Michael St. Jean to skip client virtualization altogether, moving ahead with his plan to incorporate thin clients and the cloud. St. Jean, director of technology for the 16-school Pawtucket School Department in Rhode Island, started the journey nearly a decade ago by buying the first of what would become 2,200 HP thin clients and dozens of virtualized Remote Desktop Servers running Microsoft Windows Server.
"Our goals are portability and mobility for our users, so we have developed a system where students, teachers and administrators can access what they need from wherever they happen to be through thin clients that are low-cost and low-energy," St. Jean explains.
One physical server can host multiple virtual Remote Desktop Server images. For example, a virtual Remote Desktop Server can host up to 100 thin client devices spread throughout an elementary school, or 30 thin clients housed in a secondary school computer lab. If users need multiple types of applications and resources, they can point to more than one Remote Desktop Server.
"Essentially, what we have built is a private cloud with remote servers that allow users to get their applications, files and other resources from wherever they have an Internet connection," St. Jean says. "Their files are there, along with printers and applications, so they can work anywhere."
The percentage of IT decision-makers who say business agility is their organization's primary reason for adopting cloud computing
SOURCE: Sand Hill Group
As HP comes out with better thin clients, the Pawtucket School Department upgrades to them. The school district recently purchased the HP 5740E, which supports full web browsing and video streaming. St. Jean also continues to modernize the back end. Although he uses Citrix XenServer for server virtualization, he is beginning to experiment with Microsoft Hyper-V because of a new capability that will deliver a richer multimedia experience to thin clients.
In addition to flexibility and mobility, the IT staff has been relieved of much of its labor-intensive work.
"We have installed these applications on about 40 Remote Desktop Servers pushing out to 2,200 thin clients, and we're doing it with one technician, one systems engineer and one network administrator," St. Jean says. "We can do that because we're not spending time maintaining full desktop PCs."
One Step at a Time
Client virtualization is just the first step toward client computing in the cloud. Along with the many client virtualization technologies available today, manufacturers such as Wyse Technology and Lenovo are introducing client computing models that incorporate virtualization and the cloud.
But the goal, true desktop as a service, is several years off, says Bob O'Donnell, vice president of clients and displays at IDC.
"The vision of being able to access a desktop in the cloud, where all of your applications and settings are housed, can be done today, but not to the scale that organizations need," he explains.
To get there means that all –not just some –of the applications users need are capable of being virtualized and stored in the cloud. That's not a reality today, O'Donnell says, because some software might need to be upgraded to a newer (and more expensive) version that will work in the cloud, and other software that was custom-written (like an enterprise resource planning system) may need to be replaced.
"It's just a matter of time, because that's what users want," he says. "The flexibility of being able to access your desktop on any device from any location is just too compelling."