When Melissa Auchter joined Michigan’s Ferndale Public Schools (FPS) as director of technology services four years ago, the 11-school district’s data center was barely meeting current requirements, much less its future needs. Most of its six servers at the time were aging and out of warranty. Some were maxing out on disk space, while others ran as many as seven applications on a single operating system. If one application had problems or was in conflict with another, the whole server crashed.
Auchter chose to solve these problems by investing in a new data center with server virtualization at its heart. Today, eight new servers run 40 applications, with each application isolated in its own virtual machine (VM). The remedy has eliminated conflicts and allowed FPS to build a reliable, more cost-effective and easier-to-manage server infrastructure with ample computing power and storage space to support its growing technology needs, which includes a future virtual high school.
“We needed to find a way to have an enterprise-level environment on a shoestring budget,” Auchter says. “We’re not a big district, but we have to run the same software tools as the big districts. Virtualization allows us to do it without breaking the bank.”
Educators also can benefit from another form of ROI: a “return on innovation,” in which schools use the new virtual infrastructure to provide enhanced services and capabilities (such as additional educational applications) to students and staff, says Greg Schulz, founder of the Server and StorageIO Group. “It’s about leveraging virtualization to innovate and enhance the learning experience,” he explains.
Planning is a key element in successful virtualization implementations. Besides assessing the current data center, this process typically includes identifying virtualization goals, deciding on which virtualization software and hardware to standardize, and developing an implementation strategy and timetable.
Like Auchter, Systems Engineer Mark Landis joined FPS during the 2008–2009 school year. They spent their first year stabilizing the current environment and making plans to overhaul the IT infrastructure.
“It gave us time to plan and review what to do with the data center,” Auchter recalls. “We spent a lot of time researching different virtual solutions to decide what we really wanted to do.”
Auchter and Landis tested virtualization software from Citrix Systems, Microsoft and VMware, and even visited other school districts to learn the pros and cons of their implementations. Ultimately, because they planned to transition from the district’s legacy Novell NetWare to Microsoft Windows Server 2008, they chose Microsoft’s Hyper-V virtualization software. Hyper-V comes with the operating system, so it was essentially free.
“Many of the critical features that the other vendors had, Hyper-V also had,” Landis explains. “We wanted the best value for the money, and Hyper-V worked so well from the start that there was no reason to buy another solution.”
Other districts have chosen VMware and Citrix for their own unique reasons. According to Network and Student Data Technician Willie Marlin, the three-school Byron Union School District in Byron, Calif., embraced VMware because it was the first and most advanced x86 server virtualization software on the market. For Jason Willis, network manager for Minooka Community Consolidated School District 201 in Minooka, Ill., using Citrix XenServer just made sense: The seven-school district already was using Citrix XenApp for a thin client deployment.
When it comes to virtualization deployments, a phased approach works best. Indeed, it took Ferndale three years to virtualize nearly all of its applications. Today, eight HP ProLiant DL380 G5, G6 and G7 servers run 40 VMs.
Auchter and her team began by developing a multiyear technology and implementation plan for the data center overhaul, which they presented to Superintendent Gary W. Meier and the district’s Board of Education. The project was quickly approved, with the understanding that the IT staff would implement the plan in pieces, as funding allowed.
“There were a lot of infrastructure and foundational changes that needed to be made, and the superintendent understood that,” Auchter says. “You just have to plan everything out and know everything you want to do and how much it will cost. When the budget or a grant allows it, you implement it.”
The district currently uses direct-attached storage, but Auchter and Landis hope to soon purchase a SAN to take advantage of virtualization’s disaster recovery features. Once the data is centralized in a SAN, they will make the VMs mobile. That way, if one server goes down, the VMs can automatically migrate to another server to keep applications running, Landis says.
Training is equally important to any server virtualization effort. Landis taught himself how to implement the technology by reading Microsoft’s technical books and consulting online resources. “I looked at various technical bulletin boards to see how other people solved problems and what pitfalls they encountered so we could avoid making the same mistakes,” he says.
Ferndale’s virtualization project didn’t include server consolidation. But virtualization did reduce the district’s server costs because it didn’t have to buy 40 physical servers (one for each application). “We wouldn’t have had the money for 40 physical servers,” Auchter says.
Virtualization also reduced FPS’ energy costs because it has to manage the power and cooling of only eight (rather than 40) servers. The improved reliability and uptime a virtualized environment delivers have increased productivity and reduced IT support costs as well. “We don’t have anything going down, and that leads to less troubleshooting,” Landis says.
Districts also can save money (and time) by creating test environments. Minooka CCSD 201, for example, has six HP ProLiant DL580 servers running 52 virtual machines, including its nursing and library applications. A seventh DL580 server is used for testing. “The cost savings is amazing,” says Willis, the district’s network manager. “If I have to do testing, I don’t have to go tell my boss that I need to buy a new server. I just right-click and create a new virtual server.”
Ferndale’s Landis confirms that he can launch a virtual server using an OS image in 10 minutes and install an application in 90 minutes. In the past, he would have had to unpack a new server, make sure all the parts were there, download all the drivers and perform “burn-in” testing. The process from unpacking to going live was a 16-hour to two-day project, he says.
Because he’s solely responsible for Byron USD’s IT department, Marlin considers ease of management to be virtualization’s greatest benefit. “I’m a one-man shop, and with VMware’s management software, I can literally manage my servers from my desktop or smartphone,” he says.
To reap virtualization’s many benefits, districts first must invest in the technology. But the IT professionals who have done it insist that it’s money well spent.
As Ferndale’s Auchter points out, virtualization “isn’t a project. It’s a way of life.”
Asked to choose their top five virtualization initiatives, IT leaders from 161 responding organizations cited the following:
Among respondents in the education sector, 58% said they increased spending on virtualization in the past year.
SOURCE: “2011 Virtualization Software Spending Trends” (Enterprise Strategy Group)