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School district uses virtualization to 'kid-proof' 10,000 student PCs

New approach reduces support problems and meters software-license use more efficiently

By , Network World
May 01, 2008 07:07 PM ET

Network World - The small IT staff of the Kent School District in Kent, Wash., has discovered a way to nearly kid-proof the thousands of notebook PCs it’s phasing in for all grade levels.

The district uses the notebooks simply as a repository for groups of applications that are virtualized using the Microsoft Application Virtualization software (formerly SoftGrid). Each application is packaged with Microsoft’s virtual runtime, stored on a server, and then downloaded to a notebook or desktop PC when a student logs on and clicks the corresponding icon. On a notebook, the package runs in a protective virtual “bubble,” instead of actually being installed on the PC.

That means district IT staff largely avoid the plague of application conflicts, changes, DLL snafus, and all the other software-based problems that are routine for large laptop deployments. Because the PCs share a common, standard Windows XP software image, spares can be stored at every school. If a student’s laptop stops working for any reason, he or she can swap it for a spare, fire it up, download the virtualized application set and get back to work.

Sidestepping the typical hardware and software support burden is critical to the district’s ambitious goal of equipping all students in grades 7-12 with a laptop PC that could be taken home. But to truly realize the notebook’s potential, district officials realized they also had to revamp the curriculum to make use of it, and train and support teachers to exploit both. The expanded laptop program got under way with an extensive pilot in September 2005.

Currently there are about 10,000 computers for 27,000 students in 40 buildings spread over 72 square miles just south of Seattle. Of those machines, 3,000 are notebooks, the rest desktops. The district will be adding up to 2,500 notebooks per year until it reaches the target goal of 15,000 for the upper grades, says Thuan Nguyen, the district’s director of information technology. All are currently running Windows XP, but the district will be shifting to Vista in 2009.

Application overload

“The biggest thing about this deployment is not just the increased laptop numbers but the number of applications being managed,” says Lee Nichols, global solutions director for Getronics, a Billerica, Mass., IT services firm (now a subsidiary of Dutch telecom provider KPN). “That’s the real problem: how to manage all this?”

The district hired Getronics to help them do just that.

Astonishingly, the district has an inventory of 500 applications, based on a poll of the teachers. “That’s been an eye-opener for me,” admits Nguyen. Fortunately, with the Application Virtualization platform, IT staff now can track centrally what applications are being used, when, and how often. Only about 300 applications have actually been used. Nguyen will use this data to decide whether and when to retire some application licenses, and possibly to increase licenses for in-demand programs.

At first, the IT staff set out to find a conventional program to automate software installation on the PCs. But the Getronics team, which started working with the district in 2006, introduced them to SoftGrid, and its vendor, Softricity. It was during this period that Microsoft acquired Softricity, and started integrating the software with back-end servers such as Active Directory, Systems Manager Server, Terminal Services and Systems Center Configuration Manager.

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