With virtual desktops, the computing complexity is shifted to the server or datacenter. One of the reasons that this model is so attractive to schools is that the maintenance of the devices becomes centralized.
Districts, administrators, and parents all have the same goal: ensure that children have the necessary tools to attain success. Technology proficiency is now undoubtedly one of those tools. As school districts across the country are struggling — all trying to do more with less — technology expenditures are under the microscope. Not only does technology require an initial financial investment, it also requires ongoing maintenance and support. As personal computer (PC) prices have plummeted over the past few years, the allure of 1:1 computing is strong. Maintenance and support costs, however, have emerged as a critical challenge within the education environment. With all challenges, however, comes opportunity. You can create a world-class computer lab, place computers directly into classrooms, and support a rich technology curriculum — all without overburdening your financial resources or technical support teams.
The Rise and Fall of the PC
Computers have changed the way students learn and excel at school. Today’s generation of students are being raised in an “always on” computing mode. Whether it’s PCs, the Web, mobile computing, or social media, schools need to relate in ways where students are engaged. Today’s students are no more able to imagine a world without computers than you are able to imagine a library without books. When PCs first emerged, districts scrambled to make sure that they could put computers in front of their students and that teachers could incorporate computers into their lesson plans. A few years later, however, maintenance and support costs began to rear its ugly head. Many school districts found themselves caught in a vicious cycle of PC replacement. School districts don’t have the deep pockets of a Fortune 500 company, so they couldn’t afford to keep up with the replacement of dying PCs. Instead, the PCs sat languishing in school computer labs either out of commission, or barely chugging along.
The dirty little secret about today’s IT departments is how much time they have to spend maintaining their systems, as much as 80 percent in some cases. When you consider that maintenance is particularly difficult in school environments where multiple users share devices and applications, the school IT administrator is in an unenviable position.
One of our customers put it this way: “If I told one of our teachers that they had to teach every student individually and not as part of a larger classroom, they would look at me like I was crazy, but that’s exactly the model required to support PCs.”
Even school districts that are finding they have the financial wherewithal to purchase new PCs are realizing the hidden costs of PC maintenance. Danbury School District in Connecticut found themselves in this exact situation. With a barebones IT staff supporting a technology infrastructure of 10,000 students across 18 schools, the IT infrastructure manager was in a quandary: he had funds for new computers, but not the funds for additional staff to support them.
Yevgeniy Skylar, the Infrastructure Manager at Danbury Public Schools in Connecticut had this to say: “It wasn’t the upfront cost of PCs that made us turn to virtual desktops; the prices of PCs continue to drop and are seemingly attractive...you could offer me an entire fleet of free PCs and it still wouldn’t make sense economically. The maintenance costs over time are too much to bear. Our biggest challenge is to make sure our technology infrastructure works. Thin clients help me assure that.”
Consider what Walt Mossberg of The Wall St. Journal recently said about PCs: “There’s no other major item most of us own that is as confusing, unpredictable and unreliable as our personal computers.”
That is why thin clients, or virtual clients as they are also known, have emerged as the next wave of computing devices. Virtual clients are replacing the PC because they last longer, require less maintenance, and use less energy. Unlike a typical PC that has the memory, storage and computing power to run applications, a virtual client offers the same functionality but with a different architecture. Virtual clients have no moving parts, no hard drive, and no disc drive. Basically, a virtual client contains none of the components that make PCs so vulnerable and unreliable.
With virtual desktops, the computing complexity is shifted to the server or datacenter. One of the reasons that this model is so attractive to schools is that the maintenance of the devices becomes centralized. This is especially important in an environment where multiple users share devices and applications, such as schools. Virus, patch management and download issues are complicated enough with PCs, but when those devices are shared among users, these complexities significantly increase. With PCs, tech support would have to install patches and virus protection updates individually at each PC. If a machine was down, they would have to physically remove the computer.
With virtual clients, the updates are made centrally and all the devices are automatically upgraded.
At Danbury, for example, that translated to having just one individual overseeing more than 500 virtual clients and almost all of the time the IT team used to spend replacing and fixing PCs has gone away. Previously, that benefit came with a cost: virtual clients of the past had difficulty running multimedia and rich applications, but today’s systems support voice, data, and video, including high definition media, which is key to enabling learning.
Cloud (Computing) on the Horizon
Cloud computing is a term bantered about a lot these days. Cloud computing is the notion that computer applications and processing are offered as a service over a network. Think of Salesforce.com or Gmail, both of which are hosted elsewhere but provide functionality at the users’ desktop. Many districts are wondering how cloud computing concepts can or should be incorporated into their technical strategy. In fact, cloud computing is one of the reasons why virtual clients are a perfect replacement to PCs in schools. Cloud computing can be provided via a private network (inside your building) or public (on the Internet) datacenter, accessing them over a private network, or a secure Web channel. Using private and public clouds has the potential to make application access ubiquitous, and accessible from anywhere, including various schools in a school district.
A key benefit of cloud computing is the pay-as-you-go model, which eliminates the up front capital cost of buying servers and datacenter equipment. Now you can rent server time, but deliver modern Windows, Web, and Linux applications. The virtual client merely becomes the access point to the data residing in the cloud. This is a huge shift in the way we think about computing.
Think about it. Why does a school district even need PCs, when not only are select applications (Word, PowerPoint, et al), but an entire operating system and application suite, available to be accessed remotely? When nothing is stored on the PC, then the need for a PC goes away and the business case for a virtual client steps forward.
Virtual clients fit into cloud computing perfectly because they shift computing complexity to the datacenter and save schools’ money due to lower maintenance costs, longer life than PCs, consume less energy and are easier to maintain. There are some interesting historical parallels to the way PCs are currently evolving. Over 100 years ago, in order for many businesses to succeed, they needed to be close to power supplies. That is why manufacturing arose near rivers, where water was used to create electricity to run the manufacturing plant. The rise of the electrical grid de-coupled the use of power from the proximity to that power. Once the electrical network was in place and functioning as a reliable and ubiquitous utility, the need to generate power locally evaporated.
This is very similar to the rise of personal computer market. While processing power continues to grow at the chip level, the need for that power to be part of the PC is likewise evaporating. When computing services are available akin to a utility model, with the cloud hosting applications and operating systems and the virtual client acting as the simplified access point to those applications, then the advantage of having a high-powered PC becomes a liability.
The combination of cloud computing, virtual clients and the concept of Green IT (eco-friendly computing) is a good harbinger for school districts. IT departments can get more computers directly into the hands of students, spend less time maintaining problem PCs, save money over the lifetime of a virtual client, all while using less energy.