New to the concept of virtualization? Here's a quick look.
While a familiar concept in corporate environments, virtualization is still fairly new to most educational institutions, however pioneering districts are already developing an understanding of its impact on meeting a variety of school needs and keeping the budget balanced.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, a quick snapshot: Virtualization can take many forms, but it is basically a method for providing technology services or applications in a logical (i.e., "virtual") fashion rather than in true physical form. A prime example can be found in the area of server technology in which one physical server can "virtually" host multiple operations systems and applications on the hardware. Through specialized virtualization software, the hardware on the server could host a Novell, Windows or Linux operating systems running database, and Web or file server applications, each in its own virtual workspace independent of the other applications. Virtualization has applications for such platforms as well as resources for disaster recovery, storage and software development.
Virtualization at the server level addresses the issues of managing and supporting multiple servers and their associated direct and indirect costs. Application virtualization solutions allow for numerous software solutions to be provided, supported and updated via one point of contact on the network rather than needing installation on each desktop with the subsequent need for support in terms of upgrades, patches and fixes.
Why Go Virtual?
With the increasing affordability of hardware needed to run many school systems' technology applications, one might wonder why you need to consider the virtualization of resources. On the surface, buying more equipment to keep up with user demands seems easy enough, but it certainly doesn't help your bottom line. Reducing your total cost of ownership is one major benefit of virtualization. Following are some ways it does that.
1. Fewer servers running your applications means less power, heat and space needs.
2. Virtualization of legacy operating systems can lengthen the lifespan of older software and reduce the need for purchasing the latest and greatest version of a product. For example, accounting software applications developed for a mainframe environment or DOS-based applications can continue to provide service to districts when these operating systems are hosted on a virtual server.
3. Professional development training and the accompanying expenditures and resources can also be minimized when staff are not required to learn a lot of new applications.
4. Disaster recovery initiatives can also utilize the benefits of virtualization. The ability to provide fail-over protection and quick recovery of service and data are prime examples of the role virtualization could play in getting your district's technology services back online quickly after an emergency. A virtualization server could provide immediate access to needed applications that were formerly hosted on an out of commission server as well as data that had been replicated as a backup.
Getting started with Virtualization
- Assess. Begin with a thorough assessment of your current situation and inventory. You will need to know what servers are in place, what applications are installed and the role of each in your organization.
- Ask the right questions, which could include: What are our connectivity and storage needs or other technical limitations? Are there business constraints in terms of maintenance efforts, load requirements and uptime needs?
- Do your vendor homework. Some of the big names in virtualization such as Citrix, VMware and Microsoft (see "Virtualization Companies," below) all offer their own brand of virtualization. These and other solutions offer a host of possibilities for school systems in their efforts to go virtual, with each having specific strengths and limitations that need to be evaluated on the basis of a district's current technical, business and support constraints. Demonstrations from and conversations with these vendors about your specific needs is a good starting point.
- Communicate. Communication with users and administration at all phases of development and implementation is key, as feedback and input from all parties will be critical at each step.
- Start small. A good idea is to start with a small and well-defined need as a pilot program for virtualization in your district. This way you can more clearly evaluate its impact.
Understanding how—with proper planning and implementation—this technology can assist your district, is the most important first step in reaping real benefits from virtualization.
Lane B. Mills, Ph.D., is Associate Professor in the Educational Leadership program at East Carolina University. A former Assistant Superintendent for Accountability and Technology for a North Carolina school system, Dr. Mills was a 2004 Technology and Learning Ed Tech Leader of the Year finalist.