Park Hill School District in Kansas City continues to enhance its infrastructure, adding virtual client and a range of supported end-user configurations.
Virtualization Maximizes Flexibility
Save more, give more.
That could be the motto for the IT department of the Park Hill School District in Kansas City, Mo.
“When it comes to centralized management and remote management capabilities, we're really focused on creating and delivering efficiencies in an automated and virtualized capacity to respond to user requests,” says Brad Sandt, director of technology for the district. “Increasing our response time to end users and being able to handle more requests more quickly are big drivers for virtualization.”
A long-standing user of virtualization to improve productivity for faculty, students, IT staff and even visitors, Park Hill has been deploying new applications and adding virtual desktop software to its virtual infrastructure.
Sandt says the goal is to ensure that the widest possible range of client devices can access a uniform set of applications and network resources within the school district's infrastructure.
The client devices that require support now are vastly different than when Park Hill began using virtualization and its early predecessors some 10 years ago. Today, students and faculty can access virtualized apps from tablet computers and even sophisticated smartphones.
The fact that virtualization can adapt so readily to the latest devices is a testament to its flexibility and value it can offer K–12 IT departments.
In a virtualized environment, one physical server can house multiple “virtual” servers that support different applications, organizations or workloads, often resulting in a reduction in overall hardware. The virtual infrastructure also makes it possible to install and update widely used apps from a single system, rather than on individual end-user devices. That greatly simplifies maintenance and reduces overhead.
Centralization lets IT organizations deliver better service to their end users, Bernard Golden, CEO of the tech consulting firm HyperStratus.
“One of the challenges for an individual school is to call a central IT group and say they need IT help because it may take a couple days for somebody to get out there,” Golden says. “With virtualization, by contrast, you get more consistent practices. It's not just, â€˜Well, Bob was over here working on this server and that server.' ”
Financial pressures faced by K–12 school districts also make virtualization a compelling technology solution, says Kathy Twomey, channel development manager for Citrix, whose XenApp technology is a core component of the Park Hill School District's virtual architecture. “The expectation of IT organizations is that they support a proliferation of devices, and when you look at traditional computing paradigms, to have to touch every one of those devices is no longer feasible.”
Serving All Your Users
Park Hill has 10,300 students, 1,400 faculty and staff, and 19 sites served by a high-bandwidth network. It has a staff of 13 technology professionals supporting its systems, network and end users.
The district began using Citrix's Presentation Server technology, which has since evolved into XenApp, roughly a decade ago in what Sandt describes as the district's application deployment strategy.
The strategy's core aim is to make apps accessible broadly and flexibly to users –regardless of their client computing device – while maintaining strong access controls and not requiring devices to run a full application suite locally. Virtualization is the only way to making that a reality.
“We use XenApp to deliver virtual applications. Maybe those are apps we want to run centrally and not off the shelf to all clients,” Sandt says. “There are also apps that users access from home or that are data-centric. We don't want all that running on the network, so we run them in our data center.”
The district uses the XenApp infrastructure, running alongside VMware ESX virtualization software, to support human resources and finance systems, Microsoft Office productivity apps, ExamView test-generating software, instructional software programming apps, as well as the Blackboard educational program.
Virtualization also delivers significant benefits in an area that's often a cost and resource drain for many IT organizations: maintenance and upgrades of software.
“If you were to consider an upgrade to a software application where we had to go to all of our administrative assistant computers, that process probably would have previously taken one to two months,” Sandt says. “With the virtual desktops, we can now complete that upgrade in a day.”
The district has Office loaded on all notebooks and also on its XenApp servers, so it can offer uniform functionality – regardless of a desktop's configuration – to any client that might join the network. “If they are on a computer outside the district, a home computer, or if they're a student in a neighboring district, they have access to all our software apps,” Sandt says.
Park Hill's back-end infrastructure consists of a primary data center and a backup facility with hot standby processing capabilities to support applications considered mission-critical and requiring 24x7 uptime.
Sandt's team is bumping up bandwidth between facilities to support new applications including video, video surveillance and more than 1,300 IP phones currently in use. That additional bandwidth has become increasingly important given the increasing role that Internet-streamed video plays in classroom instruction, Sandt says.
Supporting Technology: Thin Clients
From its earliest use of virtualization technology, Park Hill had a goal of supporting a broad range of client platforms. Increasingly, the district's focus is on allowing students and faculty to use their own devices on the district's network.
In addition to the XenApp server technology, the district also uses XenDesktop, which gives users a full desktop experience regardless of their devices.
Park Hill began using XenDesktop about a year ago.
“They log on to on the wireless network, access a login page for XenDesktop, and then download and install the client,” Sandt says. “XenDesktop gives individuals a completely dedicated desktop environment, and they have the full power of a desktop.”
Many school districts wrestle with a disparity in the economic circumstances of students, with some pupils able to afford the latest devices while others are at least a generation behind, if they have computing devices at all. But with a common set of apps delivered on a virtualized, centralized basis, a district can level the playing field and ensure that the same apps are available to everyone, says Citrix's Twomey. “This is a viable alternative to deliver services to all students, regardless of their economic status.”
Some particularly important client devices that Park Hill supports are its Wyse Technology thin clients, effectively display devices that connect to a virtualized server and present information to users.
Park Hill chose the Wyse thin clients as an affordable upgrade for its aging desktop and notebook PCs. The district estimates it will save $300 to $400 per client over a four-year depreciation cycle – a significant savings when multiplied by the 300 thin clients currently deployed. And that doesn't include the savings gained through reduced power use and IT management overhead.
K–12 IT organizations also realize savings with thin clients when they apply two rules of thumb: For every $1 spent on hardware, there is an additional $3 spent on maintenance and patching of individual devices. By hosting software centrally, those additional support expenses are averted. Also, thin clients generally offer longer refresh cycles than PCs: five to seven years versus three to four.
In Park Hill, administrative personnel, counselors, building maintenance professionals and other staff members use the Wyse thin clients.
Thin clients have been especially useful in converting rooms from old desktop PCs to newer hardware. “I can't order them fast enough for technicians to install,” Sandt says. “It literally takes longer to remove an old desktop than it does to put a thin client in. It pulls its configuration off the network, and it's ready to go.”
Ready to Go: Virtualization Eases Transition to Distance Learning
Although the Park Hill School District is a longtime leader in the use of virtualization, the district's applications give an additional meaning to the term “virtual.”
Park Hill offers online classes to students inside its district as well as students in bordering districts, selling seats in classes to those students who don't attend a Park Hill school.
In the latter scenario, Park Hill uses the Blackboard application for online learning management. “Students from other districts get identical network access – storage space, e-mail access, all those types of things – as our own students,” says Brad Sandt, director of technology for the district. “We use Citrix to deliver all those programs.”
Sandt says the district has demonstrated leadership in Missouri by delivering virtual education to its own and external students, and the infrastructure it has put in place is an important factor in its ability to do so.
“We were in a good position with our infrastructure, our data center and Citrix XenApp to be able to offer these courses,” he says.