Guest Blog Post
By John Orbaugh; Director of Technology Services,Tyler Independent School District
My name is John Orbaugh and I’m the Technology Director for the Tyler Independent School District in Tyler, Texas. I’ve been asked to write a blog about our experience of selecting, testing, purchasing and deploying a virtual desktop solution in our school district. More about that in a minute, but first let me tell you a little about who we are.
We are a K-12 public school made up of over 18,500 students, 2,300 employees and 30 instructional campuses. We’re a pretty diverse community with very wealthy to very poor families. Over 65% of our students are economically disadvantaged and we have a rapidly growing Hispanic population. All in all we’re probably a typical school district. I’m approaching my 17th year in the district. I began my career in Tyler ISD by building the district’s first networks back in the heady days of campus based Novell file servers and T1 circuits. Today we centrally host over 120 VMware based virtual servers, 96 Tb of storage and have 1 Gb fiber connecting all campuses and district facilities.
We do have a number of challenges facing us with budget cutbacks from the Texas legislature. As of this moment it appears that our district will be dealing with a budget reduction of up to $11 Million. The good news is that we have known for some time now that this was coming. Our challenge now is to determine how as a district we will be able to provide our students with the computers they need in classrooms and labs. We have 4,000 student computers in our district and many of them are nearing nine to ten years of use. Well past the time to replace them. How can we afford to replace these systems during a time of severe budget reductions? How could I make old technology new again?
For our district the solution is to convert our existing fleet of aging PCs into thin client devices. I have been interested in this technology as a way of opening our doors to greater student access to instructional resources for many years now. I wanted our students to have access to what they needed anytime they were ready to learn. My staff and I tried this concept out five years ago, but found that our instructional software lacked the maturity to work well in this environment and the available technology and protocols just weren’t up to the task. Since I couldn’t control that issue, we set about upgrading and standardizing our instructional software packages with an emphasis on finding web based, or at least server based, applications that would play nicer in a thin client arena. Five years later the technology to support our dream has finally arrived, but what terrible timing! Could I convince our district’s leadership and Board of Trustees to invest the funds to enable us to move a virtual desktop project forward at a time when the legislature is preparing to lop $11 Million from our budget? I knew we had our work cut out for us, but if I could prove that the technology would work and save us money we would be able to move the project forward.
We knew who the players were in this realm so finding technology offerings wasn’t the problem. The question was, “What will work for us given our combination of network, applications and antique PCs?” To get started we connected with a top consulting firm and signed them up to provide a small proof of concept deployment of about five systems. We were, by the way, able to get this work done at zero cost to the district. Show me what you can do and then we’ll talk about money. The PoC was enough to let us begin to get a feel for the capabilities of the consultants, develop a little experience with the software and determine how well our old computers would perform. What we learned from the proof of concept was extremely encouraging. We found that a PC purchased in April 2002, (Intel Pentium 4 processor with 256Mb RAM) could simultaneously operate Windows 7, MS Office 2010 Pro, IE8 and stream video perfectly just like a brand new PC. It was an Ezekiel like moment as these old dead relics of PCs had new life breathed into them and became useful once again. In fact it worked so well that I decided to try a “Pepsi Challenge” with the district’s leadership team and our Board of Trustees. Could they tell the difference in a blind test between a thin device and a standard PC?
I had my network staff configure a thin PC and a modern one with the same exact software loads. I set them up side by side and then proceeded to cover the CPUs with a box and draped them in black so only the monitors, keyboards and mouses were exposed. At our next Leadership Team meeting I trumpeted the glories of thin client computing and then issued the challenge to them to come and give the systems a try to see if they could tell the difference. One or two at a time they would wander by my office to try the systems out. They would watch the video and listen to the sound quality on each, type a Word document, pull up a website and wiggle the mouse around. This was followed by little head scratching and either a wild guess or just saying they gave up. I then set up the same test at our next Board meeting and issued the same challenge to the Trustees. Same result. Of course that was exactly what I wanted to prove.
The next order of business was to secure the funding for a broader test.
To be continued…