Note: This was cross posted at the Classlink Blog.
In my last post, “Sustaining the Unsustainable”, I examined the status of a small district completely overwhelmed by the trials and tribulations of maintaining a 500 + workstation network. National statistics show that this district’s technical support struggles are like many other districts throughout the country. There is no doubt that schools are struggling to maintain the technology that they have in place today. Unfortunately, the more inconsistent and unreliable the technical support and infrastructure becomes, the less it is used to its full potential by teachers and students.
If you believe, as I do, that we are on our way to a ubiquitous, ‘one laptop per child’ world, then the challenges we are experiencing sustaining the technology we have now, are just previews of the larger technical support and infrastructure issues we will be facing in the future. In the case of the little district we have been discussing, think about supporting 1500 computing devices (most of them mobile) instead of 500.
It’s time to explore a new networking paradigm; one that allows us to grow our networks in a way that doesn’t multiply our technical support workload the way present the ‘best practice’ of supporting hundreds, even thousands of individual hard drives does.
A simplistic explanation of ‘virtualization’ is that we remove the software applications that now reside on individual hard drives throughout our buildings, and install them on centralized file servers. When a student or teacher uses a piece of software, it is not running on their individual workstation, it is running on a file server; thus their workstation is a ‘virtual’ one.
So what are the benefits of designing our network infrastructures this way?
1. Instead of supporting the software installed on hundreds/thousands of hard drives, we manage a much smaller number of easily accessible, centralized file servers. In this new scenario, a network technician can support many, many more computers than is possible, in the old distributed computing environment.
2. We can easily install and update software on the servers so that every workstation runs the same version of an application. The time consuming work of ‘pushing’ software out to workstations, ghosting workstation images, etc. becomes a thing of the past.
3. Because our workstations are ‘virtual’, and we are using neither their processing power nor their hard drive space; we can keep our older computers for longer periods of time.
4. Once again, because we are using our files servers to run our software, we can begin to purchase lower cost computing devices, some of which may have no hard drives, or moving parts.
No moving parts, means fewer maintenance issues.
Lower cost devices translate into larger numbers of computers for students.
5. Improvements in ‘virtualization’ technologies make it possible to provide much higher application performance levels, as well as reliability, and ‘uptime’. Application file servers can ‘load balance’ as applications are being run. When you run a piece of software it will always open on the ‘least busy’ file server. In addition, when a file server fails for some reason, the applications don’t stop being delivered, they simple are opened on the other fully functioning servers.
6. Because the software is running on servers, you can access your applications from any computer (with network or Internet connectivity), from anywhere, including home. When you log into the network, whether at home or somewhere in the school building, your applications are at your fingertips even if they are not on the computer at which you are sitting. This translates to 24×7×7 access to all your applications and files.
Districts like Lemon Grove have gone a long way to showcase the benefits of ‘virtualizing’ their infrastructures.
Sometimes our current ‘best practices’ prevent us from seeing new possibilities. It’s time to begin to develop a new paradigm for our infrastructures; one that makes sense in an emerging, increasingly mobile, ‘one to one’ world.
What are the technical challenges and costs of ‘virtualization’? What is the downside of ‘virtualization’? What are some of the concerns and issues that are raised by detractors of the new paradigm? This will be the focus of our next post.