School districts across the country always have had to do more with less. Funding only goes so far, leaving administrators and IT staff to find innovative ways to save money while maintaining a high level of academic quality.
Creating virtual servers accomplishes both tasks, district technology personnel say. Not only do virtual environments allow districts to use fewer servers, performance often is enhanced, saving money on electricity and the cost of new equipment.
There are very few win-win situations in the current business climate, but virtualization may well be one of them.
Superior Performance, Quick ROI from VMware
Not many technology projects can achieve ROI in a single year, but the School District of the Chathams’ server virtualization project did just that.
The six-school, 3,700-student K-12 district reduced the number of servers it uses by 60%, from 44 to 18, reports John Abdelmalak, director of technology for the district based in Chatham, NJ. Three Dell servers in the data center are running VMware ESX to allow virtualization, while a server in each of the district’s six sites is running VMware’s free ESXi software. Local servers run a domain controller, deployment server, and antivirus software, while the data center servers operate mission-critical functions.
As a side benefit, the district is saving an estimated $30,000 a year in electricity costs by running fewer servers.
Abdelmalak attended a Dell Lunch and Learn about virtualization last year, which piqued his interest. “It took us several years to get on a technology refresh cycle in the district,” says Abdelmalak, who joined the district four years ago but has been in education IT for 13-plus years. “We were replacing seven to eight servers every summer, which is a lot of money and a lot of manpower to decommission old servers and transfer operations to new ones.”
The IT director asked Dell to look at the district’s server environment, and the company brought in VMware to perform a virtualization readiness assessment, which looks at memory, processor, and network utilization, along with disk I/O. The only two servers with higher than average usage were the e-mail and e-mail archive servers.
After making the virtualization decision, the district contracted with Dell for a four-day virtualization workshop to learn the basics and start the process. Abdelmalak says the hands-on experience was critical, allowing his staff to get two virtual machines up and running while becoming comfortable with the principles and practicalities involved.
ROI already has been achieved since the district bought just three servers last year and plans to purchase none this year. “Virtualization made financial sense,” Abdelmalak says. “We’re operating fewer servers with increased performance. It’s been a home run, basically.”
Virtual Iron Performs at a Good Price
Who in his right mind would upgrade server software during the school day? Lane Virgin, for one.
Virgin, systems administrator for the Bonneville (ID) Joint School District No. 93, says the virtualization solution from Virtual Iron has helped the district reduce physical server count by 13 while offering unparalleled reliability.
“Virtual Iron puts out periodic updates, and I can turn on one of the Dell (PowerEdge) R900 servers, run the upgrade, migrate the virtual servers to that machine and upgrade the other one,” says Virgin, who’s been with the 18-school, 9,500-student district for seven years. “I can do it on the fly, even at 2 p.m. on a Monday.”
The district’s new energy czar appreciates the load balancing that the Virtual Iron solution brings. Lane can set thresholds for servers to conserve power without affecting performance. If demand exceeds the threshold, another server comes on automatically to balance the load.
The department looked at solutions from VMware, Parallels Virtuozzo, and Xen before choosing Virtual Iron. Lane says Virtual Iron was one-third the price of a comparable VMware solution. “I gave up a few features, but I didn’t have them in physical servers anyway,” Virgin says.
Some applications, such as the district’s PowerSchool student information system from Pearson Education Inc., don’t lend themselves to virtualization, but Lane says that nearly everything the district has virtualized runs better and with less hassle than before.
His only frustration is with companies that don’t support products in a virtualized environment. “We’re looking at mail archival right now, and we’ve only had one company say that it supports virtualization 100%,” Virgin says.
Parallels Server Helps District Cut IT Ownership Costs by 60%
“I’m pleased to see a product that cares about the Mac shops out there,” says Micah Baker of Parallels Server for Mac.
Baker is district technology coordinator for the Oregon City School District, and the district had been using the Parallels product six months before it was released to the commercial market. The district uses Apple products almost exclusively, and Baker had a hard time finding a product that performed well in his computing environment, which includes both Apple and Windows servers. “I experimented with every virtualization product I could get my hands on,” Baker says.
As a result of this project, the district has reduced the number of servers it needs from 44 to 15, cutting total cost of IT ownership by nearly two-thirds.
“Parallels Server for Mac enabled us to move many of our Windows server applications, including our Windows Server 2008, SQL and Exchange services, to virtual machines on our Apple Xserves,” Baker says. “The reduced amount of hardware requires fewer resources and leaves a smaller footprint, yet each virtual machine maintains each critical service as if it was on its own native hardware.”
Oregon City School District took a deliberate approach to virtualization, running a pilot program to address workflow issues and overcome any challenges. Baker advises those considering virtualization to create a plan that scales easily and lends itself to low maintenance, to consider backup solutions at the same time, and to be practical about what can be virtualized and what cannot.
“The ROI is pretty straightforward and an easy sell,” Baker says. “School districts need any penny they can get their hands on, and virtualization lets our dollars go farther.”
-- Matt Bolch