Virtualizing Your District

An IT guy provides great specifics on leading a successful deployment.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Mike LesebergBefore you virtualize, consider these lessons. Mike Leseberg is the Executive Director of Information Technology at Richland School District. Mike oversees and directs the entire district technology department which directly supports the district’s vision of enhancing student achievement in their 21st century learners. “Customer service is our main focus, supporting 15 schools, 19 buildings, 11,000+ students, 1200+ staff,” says Mike, who is also adjunct faculty at Washington State University in the Computer Science Department focusing on impacts of technology in society. Here, Mike talks about challenges Richland was facing, how they overcame them, and advice for schools undertaking a similar initiative.

Victor: What are some of the challenges that you were facing with regard to keeping your desktop environment up to date and maintained?

Mike: Richland School District serves the cities of Richland and West Richland in southeastern Washington State with nine elementary schools, three middle schools, and three high schools. The district enrolls 11,100 students and has 1,400 employees. We struggled with our legacy equipment, with some systems more than eight years old. Maintaining the necessary five-year replacement cycle for our 4,500 PCs was costly and complicated. We knew we would have to change the way that we were doing business. The district needed a solution that would help it maintain its current number of installations, grow more efficiently down the road, reduce overall costs and, most importantly, still be able to run the up-to-date applications its teachers and students require. With funding and support resources maxed out, we decided to consider migrating to a virtualized computing environment and selected Citrix as our vendor.

The district needed a solution that would help it maintain its current number of installations, grow more efficiently down the road, reduce overall costs and, most importantly, still be able to run the up-to-date applications its teachers and students require.

Victor: Was there a specific precipitating event that spurred the move to a virtualized desktop environment?

Mike: On July 13, 2010, Microsoft’s extended support for Windows 2000 ended, and the product no longer received assisted support or security updates from Microsoft. We were running on this operating system and the end of life affected all editions of Windows 2000, including Windows 2000 Professional, Windows 2000 Server, Windows 2000 Advanced Server, and Windows 2000 Datacenter Server. As such, no security vendors could continue to provide software for the operating system, and using it became a threat to the district’s infrastructure. Hundreds of aging computers with small hard drives and less than a gigabyte of RAM couldn’t be upgraded from Microsoft Windows 2000 to Windows XP and couldn’t run essential software such as student assessment applications. It was at this time that we decided to explore virtualization solutions.

Victor: What solutions did you consider and what factors were most important to you in your search?

Mike: We only considered two industry partners – VMware and Citrix. The school district already used some of VMware’s technology in its server back end but ultimately decided to partner with Citrix, as its virtualization solution is comprehensive and flexible. When reviewing its partner options, we dove deep in reviewing the benefits and offerings of each company. A member of the Richland technology team attended a conference focused on desktop virtualization at which VMware and Citrix both had panelists speaking. The content that the Citrix speaker presented aligned more closely with Richland’s objectives and requirements. Specifically, Citrix’s solution supported our performance requirements, which include high-definition user experience with a heavy use of Flash. Additionally, Citrix was able to support a device-agnostic BYOD program, enabling access to our network via iPads, iPods, Androids, and other devices. Further, Citrix Netscaler provided a secure gateway for allowing non-district distributed devices to access our resources, and Citrix’s technology allowed us to repurpose older PCs to become thin clients, extending the life of the PCs and saving money. While we did already have experience with VMware’s solution, we recognized Citrix provided a more evolved and full-featured product that would scale to our requirements. Ultimately, our decision was based on finding the best product for our environment. As such, we selected to use the Citrix XenDesktop and Citrix XenApp, as these products far outpaced the competition.

Victor: Let’s talk about the implementation process. How long did it take? What lessons did you learn?

Mike: Richland School District bought its Citrix solution in late summer and made the move to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) in a matter of weeks. We were surprised at how fast we were able to roll out the solution. We’ve virtualized roughly 350 desktops to date for on-demand delivery to low-cost thin clients in classrooms, labs, and libraries, providing access to both Microsoft Office applications and web-based educational applications. We expect to expand that to 500-600 desktops by the end of the 2012-2013 school year. Even legacy software two decades old can now be accessed through any device in the district, as well as more demanding and up-to-date streaming video platforms, library automation software, and student assessment systems. Desktops for administrators and other office workers are now being considered for future implementations as well. In retrospect, we did identify a few lessons learned. First, we recommend aligning your initiative with a strong business partner that understands the intricacies of your market and end users. Also, ensure your solution provider has a strong support team available to assist through the implementation, as you will likely run into unexpected issues. Finally, make training mandatory for your staff as user error will be common as folks familiarize themselves with the new system.

Victor: What benefits are you seeing following the implementation from an IT perspective? User perspective? Operational perspective?

Mike: The any-device capabilities of our school district’s Citrix VDI solution not only make it possible for the school to replace aging computers’ thin clients at a fraction of the cost, but we can also extend the replacement cycle for these devices to seven to 10 years. These hardware savings are complemented by greatly reduced power consumption, lowering the district’s overall operating costs. End users experience the same level of service regardless of if they are running a thin client in a virtualized machine or a desktop. Meanwhile, the district can now bring everything from Apple iPads and iTouches to Droid-based smartphones into its desktop environment. We are looking to expand our BYOD scenario and will roll out new capabilities to be even more device agnostic.

Victor: How have students, teachers, administrators and other users reacted to the change in technology?

Mike: We ran into a few adoption issues initially while users got used to the system. With that said, students, teachers, and administrators are now functioning smoothly. If I don’t hear complaints from users, it’s a great sign that things are going well. I’m not hearing any complaints from end users. Our goal is for end users to be unaware of how they are accessing the district’s assets, and Citrix’s solution has enabled us to achieve this.

Victor: Can you share any metrics around the implementation – lower costs? Faster upgrades?

Mike: We estimate the typical cost of a new PC or laptop would be $800. Extrapolating and multiplying this number against our 4,500 machines and the one-to-one replacement cycle, we are saving approximately a quarter of a million dollars annually. We are also using the legacy machines for other purposes as thin clients. We anticipate seeing our savings grow over the course of the next three to four years.

Victor: How does the virtualization initiative fit into the school’s overall IT strategy?

Mike: Richland’s virtualization implementation is the foundation for its BYOD program, which is becoming increasingly important to have in the education market. We had considered moving to a VDI for nearly five years but were adamant that the time had to be right, and Windows 2000 end of life provided a great opportunity to make a change. We consider our BYOD program key as it not only provides users access to the network, but also the monitoring capabilities, security controls, and resources the district has to offer – improving the user’s overall experience.

Victor: What advice would you offer other schools undertaking a similar initiative?

Mike: A few pieces of advice for organizations considering a virtualization deployment:

·     Align with a good business partner that has experience in your market

·     Train staff in the implementation. This training will be critical to the success of your program and your ability to scale your solution

·     Take it nice and slow. Do your homework and due diligence. Understand you will need to buy the necessary hardware upfront to support your long-term technology goals. Plan to scale your solution and grow your capabilities over time.

Victor Rivero is the Editor in Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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