As part of a recent storage-related study of vSphere 5 adoptions, Wikibon conducted seven in-depth user interviews provided by three of the vendors reviewed in our study. In one of our interviews, we spoke with the technology director for a large school district looking at VDI.
Wikibon - Tell us about your virtualization journey.
Case Study Respondent - We got started in virtualization some years ago when we virtualized our district’s file servers. Just the savings on hardware and man-hours to run all over the school district to work on a file server was huge by itself.
This past year, we virtualized our applications for our students’ PCs. We can create the image up here, and it’s pushed out to all our desktops. This helps us address the issue of how to support lower income kids who have old or lower performance computers at home and who were having a hard time keeping up with their peers.
Besides the challenge of supporting our students’ PCs, the school district has old Windows ’98 and ‘2000 PCs in our classrooms – some as many as 10 years old. These really weren’t being used because they were just too slow and the browsers didn’t work.
So when we began looking at doing an upgrade of these systems, we decided to reconsider the computing model that we needed going forward in the future. So we started looking at our options around desktop virtualization. We did some proofs of concept and trials and finally settled on a VMware [“View”] solution.
The VMware solution enabled us to re-use those old PCs instead of replacing them. We found that even a 10-year-old Dell with 256 meg of RAM could run Windows 7, Office 2010 Pro, Auto-Cad, and stream HD video and audio. So it did everything that we wanted it to do at the speeds we needed. We even did a “Pepsi challenge”, a blind test with our district leadership team where we challenged them to tell the difference between our workloads and tasks on a new stand-alone new PC vs. the thin client pulling everything from the network. They couldn’t tell the difference.
After getting over that hurdle, we did a larger pilot of 200 systems scattered around our school district. Our vendor was able to gather network and performance data about our applications, which enabled them to size the system appropriately for us.
We really pushed and advertised to our students about the ability to access the tools from home and convinced them that they don’t need a really powerful system at home to make this happen - an iPad or an Android pad would be sufficient.
The system is enabling us to lower the threshold for getting the right technology into people’s hands.
Wikibon - Why did you upgrade to vSphere 5?
Case Study Respondent - We are fairly aggressive with our technology in our district. We like to keep up with what’s going on in the market and not have things getting too old. Specifically, Version 5 makes more efficient use of the hardware with lower bandwidth requirements. Version 5 of the desktop software added 3-D capability and is removing some restrictions that we had on the original system. So, the efficiencies are going to help us continue to push the technology to our kids. And one of the things we envisioned when we started this was allowing our students to learn whenever and wherever they want to learn – and this makes it available to them anytime. So they can get in and have the exact same tools as they have in their classroom - without having to have a really expensive computer at home.
Now we are looking at things like bring your own device ([BYOD]) and the PCs in the classroom. We’re exploring a variety of tablet-based computers to deliver this virtual environment to. It just continues to open up the whole world of possibilities to us as to what we can accomplish.
Wikibon - What haven’t you virtualized?
Case Study Respondent - We have not virtualized programs where the vendor says they won’t support it. In some cases, we tried it and had some really rugged performance problems. And so we had to move back onto a physical server. But again, we want to virtualize everything possible.
Wikibon - What advice would you give your peers who just now embarking on a virtualization path?
Case Study Respondent - We first started looking at desktop virtualization five years ago, but our software wasn’t mature enough, and the offerings at the time were expensive. So, instead of jumping into desktop virtualization then, we started looking at how we could improve our instructional and core applications themselves. So we started by going through a lengthy process of setting standards and upgrading and buying products district–wide. And then over a couple of years’ time, the virtual environment really spun up and matured. Our software was mature, and it made that transition very easy. Most of our applications are Web-based or server-based at a minimum these days. So it made operating them really pretty simple.
The big thing is that we visit with a lot of people. We’ve talked to people all over the country and had businesses, universities, and other school districts in to hear about what we’ve done. We always tell them to “take your time and test”. If you try to just throw some of this into your network and expect good things to happen, you’re heading for trouble.
You need to test, and test, and test your applications. Make sure you understand what’s going on in your network. Understand your users’ needs and expectations. And even when you think you’ve tested and you’ve done enough, you probably need to do some more.
One more thing. We thought we were in pretty good shape until students started using the system. And then they would come up with problems that we had to go back and fix. So one of the most important things is having the time to really, thoroughly check out your applications.
Wikibon Case Study Observations=
Functionally there were more essential improvements in the VDI virtualization area than any other. A number of the interviews indicated that VDI improvements were a major driver in moving to vSphere 5, and Wikibon will explore this area more in future surveys.
The financial and emotional case for VDI is always a difficult one. It is easier when there are large numbers of users in a single location doing similar tasks (e.g., call centers), and more difficult for distributed environments with heterogeneous tasks. The school district wisely helped by moving away from the original client/server model to Web and browser-based applications designs. The school district is reducing the requirement for modern client hardware as a requirement for education, but emphasizing that access to high-performance networks is a crucial education pre-requisite.