PC virtualization systems give schools a lot of computer learning for the buck

PC virtualization systems give schools a lot of computer learning for the buck

Sometimes it was a challenge keeping students at Danville (IL) High School focused on interactive-video lessons on the library computers. But not anymore.

Now classes, like a group of eight special-needs students recently, simply don their own headphones, watch their individual monitors, and answer questions on their own keyboards. And those who need to review the material just watch it a second time while others who finish early advance to the next section.

“Instead of all watching at a distance, they are each in their own little sensory world,” says librarian Kurt Willer. “There’s much less distraction from other students and much less downtime.”

The Danville students are using a Userful Multiplier virtualization system, which subdivides a PC hard drive, providing individual work spaces for up to eight students when several monitors and keyboards are plugged into the same computer. The catch: Each monitor must be within 15 feet of the PC to maintain signal strength. Also, the systems run only on Linux (any Linux).

The library’s eight virtualization systems (six are currently running Linux, and two are running Windows) maximize its technological capabilities from fiscal, spatial and networking perspectives. Instead of 20 computers, the library now has the equivalent of 60. And the students can use them for Internet research, reports, presentations, database queries, and even basic photo imaging, says Willer.

“This is a fabulous solution,” he says. “It spreads a lot of functionality to a lot of people for a reasonable price. It’s creating a new economic model.”

Thanks to the Multipliers, the library can handle as many as four classes simultaneously, three in labs and one at worktables, according to Willer. The library’s capacity is approximately 100 students, and it’s “not uncommon” for it to be full. “We’re a busy place,” he says.

Christel Powell, manager of information systems for the Danville school district, found out about the PC virtualization systems from Edmonton, Canada–based Omni Technology Solutions at a trade show in 2006 and quickly agreed to give them a try, thinking that the ability to hook up eight workstations from one network drop would be a huge help given the district’s old buildings.

Danville started its pilot initiative in a few middle-school classrooms, grouping the Multipliers and individual stations according to room layout and network drops, which, says Powell, weren’t always the ideal locations and sometimes made moving whiteboards necessary. Typically, she says, a teacher would assign eight students to a Multiplier for a group research activity, like one in geography, while eight others worked on a non-computer-related group project and the rest did different assignments.

“Instead of having to take kids out of the classroom and schedule time in the lab, computer learning now is just part of everyday life and always available,” says Powell. “They [the Multipliers] are great for research.”

The Linux-based systems, which have now grown to 68 installs, have not come without an adjustment period. Although students switch to its Linux-based applications, such as OpenOffice word processing, without difficulty, Powell says, some teachers have struggled to adapt from their familiar Windows desktops.

The biggest hurdle, she says, has been that users must log in twice from the Linux-based system to access folders on the Windows-based network, and this has caused confusion. The district solved this complex problem with custom scripting and “a lot of trial and error,” according to Powell.

The benefits have been great, however. The performance of the Novell SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop operating system has been “rock solid,” Powell says, and the district has achieved “huge savings” in wiring, cut hardware costs in half, and saved even more in electricity.

—Pam Derringer