Toward a New Paradigm

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.

pete

Note:
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.

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7 thoughts on “Toward a New Paradigm

  1. I completely agree that sometimes it seems that technology is being thrown into the education world. Technical support is becoming overwhelmed with the large amount of computers and technology in schools these days, especially with all the problems that older computers have. I think that you’re way of thinking for a new paradigm sounds excellent…we just need to take that step.
    If we are able to find something that won’t shut down on you, cost less money, last longer, it should be the answer to all our problems.
    Once technology for computers takes this step I believe and agree with you that there will be less dependence on the technical support and more on the computer (server) itself.

  2. Hi Pete,

    Here are some concerns I’ve thought of or heard from others – what about the applications that really need to run locally?

    How do you handle the large, multi-media files that are so much a part of transformative uses of technology? Digital storytelling, movie making/editing – they produce very large files and, for the most part, schools are doing this work on a local account on their computer hard drives. Or other applications like AutoCAD, Lightwave, animation software, many of the higher end Adobe apps?

    What kind of network and internet connection do you need in order to support virtualization? Those are potentially really big files that you’re moving across the network (movie clips from a video camera, etc…).

    How reliable are our internet connections (wide area network – WAN connections)? Right now, I know of lots of problems with WAN connections – slowness, unreliability, etc…

    In a virtualized world, you rely heavily on your WAN connection. Now, if your internet is slow or even down, you can’t do anything with the computers! If your apps are running locally, at least you could work on the local machine until the internet circuit gets fixed! I could write in Word, do mind-maps in Inspiration, etc…

    Lemon Grove actually included internet access from home for all of their families – right in the District base budget. What if you can’t get that included? In order to justify the expense of providing one device per child, you’ve probably included things like e-text books, class websites, on-line courses, etc… Yet a significant number of homes might not have internet connections to use – and now that student can’t do their homework. Politically, including home internet access makes it that much bigger and therefore that much harder to sell to budget decision makers!

    Some thoughts to ponder…
    Heidi

  3. kdobbs,
    I don’t want to oversell the concept…it certainly isn’t the answer to all our problems; but it is a paradigm that needs to be considered in order to get to a cost effective, one to one, environment.
    pete

  4. Sorry – don’t mean to keep jumping ahead.

    I’m just having these discussions with my design team right now, so have my head immersed in these issues.

    I thought you were looking for the issues that are coming up…

    The ones I mentioned in my previous comment are the ones I haven’t got solutions for yet. I look forward to seeing what other issues you’ve run into and how you’ve seen these handled!

    Thanks for the discussion!
    Heidi

  5. Interesting topic…and definitely has some potential. The major concern with a setup of this nature is that if the server goes out, the WHOLE system comes to a halt. Comparatively, if a few users a day have issues with their personal computers, they can be troubleshooted without affecting the overall community.

    Servers will also need to be POWERHOUSES of processing. I recall I attempted running a simple version of this concept in my classroom with a genetics review in the form of a self-running program under 2MB. The students got out there laptops, navigated to the server’s file, and tried to run it. The first ten got up without problems, but then the remaining 15 students had the program continually freeze up on them.

    It all comes down to dependability. If we can get 99% reliable servers and network connections – a cloud setup is golden and cost effective. Let’s hope the tech world can serve our needs. 🙂

  6. Liangatang,
    You’re right, if the system goes down, the end user has little or nothing to work with. Attention must be given to building a decent and reliable network. This is something you should want to do anyway, since the #1 application used in k-12 schools is the Internet which is not on local hard drives.

    Also, the servers do not need to be extraordinary. In fact, the cost for a dual quad core server used in these implementations is approximately $5,000. The key is to limit the number of users that a server serves. Oversubscribing will kill performance. How many users per server is predicated on what type of virtualization you decide to use.

    BTW, once you set up a server farm, if one goes out, the individual users on that server lose their sessions; but when they login again, they are automatically sent to fully functional servers.

    Finally, not all apps run in this environment. The future will be a hybrid of ‘Public Cloud’ (think Google Docs), ‘Private Cloud’ (think on location servers running non-Cloud apps virtually), and local hard drives running apps that do not run in either Cloud scenario.

    The point is to minimize the number of apps that need to run on desktop hard drives and/or to limit the number of locations that these exist.

    pete

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