Virtualization ends decade-long refresh cycle

Most government agencies are unhappily familiar with a long refresh cycle. With agencies’ tight budgets and scarce resources, employees sometimes end up working on unsupported systems, like Windows XP, while IT staff secures staff workarounds.  

The York County, Va., school district had been operating on a hardware refresh cycle that sometimes stretched to 11 years, leaving it with old, outdated equipment running a variety of operating systems and a hodgepodge of plug-in updates. Teachers were using USB drives to move their work from laptops, -- whose security policies required them to be used only at school -- to their more powerful home computers.

The district then implemented XenDesktop and NetScaler to help it provide “software on demand,” explained  Doug Meade, the director of information technology at York County School Division at the recently Citrix Synergy conference in Orlando, Fla.

Now, students and teachers have anywhere, anytime access to applications, a virtual desktop and printers. “Software is baked in to the image, streamed and hosted,” Meade said. It’s also updated far more often than it was. Before virtualization, the district updated software on 14 percent of its computers once a year. It now updates software on 95 percent of its computers four times a year.

The move to a virtual environment has also had a major impact on how the district thinks about hardware. “With virtualization, BYOD is a real alternative to a 1-to-1 initiative,” Meade said.

The district also has no need for specialized computers to run graphics-intensive software. As Meade put it, “you can run Photoshop on a smartphone.”

He also pointed that schools now have more autonomy when it comes to choosing their own computers. He said he tells them, “You can buy anything you want. You’re just going to consider it BYOD.” And every computer the district buys now has two separate images installed: one for regular instruction, and one for testing only.

Meade also shared examples of how BYOD and virtualized software can keep students and teachers working when their physical workspace is unavailable. In one instance, a major construction delay meant that students were moved from one school to another. The school under construction kept its server room open, and its students could access all their data and apps from their temporary school. In another, a hurricane knocked out power in five schools the week before school, but because of York’s flexible software infrastructure, teachers could go to any school that had power and do their work.

The teachers seem to appreciate the change. Meade recently did a survey, and 74 percent of teachers said that the virtual desktop infrastructure makes their life easier. Perhaps more importantly, 65 percent said that VDI improves the way they teach.

This article originally appeared on Campus Technology, a sister site to GCN.

About the Author

Christopher Piehler is editor in chief of THE Journal.

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