By JUDY SHERIDAN
Faced with a shrinking budget but a growing need, Aledo ISD technology director Brooks Moore looked inside the box and pulled out a virtual solution.
“We had to get creative and stretch our dollars and not compromise the experience our students are getting,” Moore told trustees during a monthly board meeting. “We were able to come to a new era in our department.”
Moore, who directs a seven-member staff that manages 7,000 devices and 20 to 30 different major applications, said before 2010 the district used a number of PCs that soaked up electricity and were chock full of items that could fail: fans, hard drives and others.
“So we decided to virtualize,” he said. “At our network operations center we took thousands of computers and virtualized them into a single rack of servers.”
Ironically, the network operating center is reminiscent of the main frames of decades ago.
In fact, the concept of having a central computer with distributed terminals used to be commonplace, so desktop virtualization is a reinvention of sorts.
When computers are virtualized, Moore explained later, they exist programmatically, not physically. Monitors and keyboards remain, but the central processing units, which contain the processing power and storage space, are replaced by servers, which are stored in the district’s data center.
Their department has taken hundreds of CPUs out of classrooms, Moore said, replacing them with smaller devices called thin clients that plug into existing monitors or are built into others.
The solid-state thin clients, which act only as conduits, are less prone to failure and use much less power.
“The technology has come far enough that we can now do 3-D video on a thin client and have a rich graphical interface for the student at a fraction of the price,” Moore said.
He said the annual savings for every 1,000 computers virtualized is $150,000 in electricity consumption alone — enough to pay three teachers.
Another cost-saving strategy has been to repurpose 10-year-old PCs, Moore said, converting them to thin clients so they can access a much faster computer in the cloud.
“We can use them until they fall dead,” Moore said, “or we can find a breaking point where it makes sense to replace them.”
The desktop virtualization process is about a quarter of the way finished, he said, but might be complete in about five years.
When Aledo ISD rolled out the new technology in 2010, it was on the leading edge, Moore said.
“The district is getting a lot of attention for this from other K-12 institutions, even universities,” he said. “I’ve spoken at tons of forums, roundtables and conferences.”
The next step, he said, will be a system that will let students access their virtual computers from any compatible device in the world,
“We are in the beginning stages of that,” Moore said. “We have done a few with special needs kids who are homebound and don’t have access to the PCs and applications located here. We have found ways to give kids an Ipad to access those applications.”
Desktop virtualization has also resulted in lower maintenance costs and fewer user problems, Moore said.
IT staff manage PCs in their office, he said, rather than sending people out, saving gas and time.
“We’re also reducing the amount of help desk tickets — the problems submitted by teachers and staff — because we can manage everything from our end and provide a very stable environment,” Moore said.
In 2009, Moore said, teachers put in 5,600 help desk tickets; in the “post-PC era,” they are at the 4,000 level.
Trustee Johnny Campbell asked if schools could go further and take advantage of “cloud service.”
“Large providers are farming out their virtual servers; they have this sky-drive kind of model,” Campbell said. It takes away the need to purchase, keep up and carry the capital need at the local level for even the virtual servers.”
Moore said some things — like the website, hosted in Denver — and the finance system, hosted at Region 11 — were already in the cloud, and others would follow.
“Every year we look at different things,” he said, “and if it makes sense technically and financially we do it. Slowly but surely we’re knocking these things off the list and hosting them in the cloud.
“We’re a hybrid. We have an internal private cloud, and we dabble in the external as well.”