Like most other school systems nationwide, Pennsylvania’s Woodland Hills School District runs up against tight budget constraints that limit its ability to deploy technology effectively. Located in the eastern suburbs of Pittsburgh, the district’s nine academic buildings and one administrative building serve nearly 6,000 K-12 students from 12 communities, more than half of whom qualify for free or reduced-price lunches.

District officials were looking for ways to reduce costs and simplify their management of technology. The solution they found met both of these goals at once, exceeding all expectations.

The results have been remarkable: Hardware costs were cut by $460,000–a savings of nearly 67 percent. Information technology (IT) maintenance and service requests have plummeted, allowing the district to support its computer systems with half the number of service technicians. System and software updates now take minutes instead of days. And teachers and students can rely on classroom technology that is now “as dependable as chalk,” according to Kevin Iachini, who heads the district’s six-member IT department.

The challenge: Providing dependable technology at a reduced cost

Woodland Hills uses more than 2,000 Windows-based personal computers to meet student and administrative needs. The district’s PCs run a variety of applications that support computer-assisted learning in reading and math, internet-based research, word processing, and the development of presentations, among other applications.

Until recently, Woodland Hills used a commercially available utility to manage deployment of software updates, user profiles, and data to the desktops of its its computer systems. Built-in multicast technology accelerated the process by enabling IT staff to initiate updates. However, every time changes needed to be made–to the classroom software, printer drivers, network configurations, and so on–updates had to be pushed to each client system’s hard disk, requiring coordination between the technical staff and classroom faculty, and leaving room for error in the transmission of data.

“It was an arduous process that often took us days,” said Iachini.

Besides these administrative challenges, maintenance of the district’s PCs kept Woodland Hills’ IT team busy. The machines in use throughout the district were fully equipped multimedia computers, each with its own hard drive, floppy drive, CD drive, and more. The PCs were, and still are, subject to a wide variety of uses and a considerable amount of wear and tear.

The machines’ floppy drives routinely wore out and often were tinkered with by curious students, necessitating repair or replacement. The floppy drives also provided limited storage capacity, often rendering them useless as student projects grew more complex in nature and required additional storage capacity in order to be archived.

“We knew there had to be a way to lower our costs to acquire computers and also change the service and maintenance dynamic,” said Iachini. “It was a matter of doing the proper research and finding the right one.”

The solution: Significant benefits in dollars, dependability, and days

For Woodland Hills, the right solution turned out to be BXP, a software program from Waltham, Mass.-based VenturCom Inc. Billed as a “diskless Windows boot and client management” utility, BXP enables system administrators to manage all computer applications–including the client machines’ operating system–from a central server.

The idea behind BPX is similar to that of thin-client computing, but with a key difference. In a thin-client architecture, the client machine is just a presentation layer, and all the processing takes place at the server level. This requires a fleet of powerful, reliable, and expensive servers. BPX takes a different approach by placing a “golden image” of the client machines’ entire system on a central server. When computers on the network boot up, they pull down this golden image and then run the software locally, so users get the full power of the PC and all its capability.

If a system administrator wants to change the configuration of software, or if there’s a problem with a particular PC or group of PCs, all the administrator needs to do is turn the computers off, make the change, and then turn the machines back on–and the new software is sent automatically.

“With BXP, we are able to do a [software] update and broadcast a new image in just minutes,” Iachini said.

Because all files and applications are stored on a central server, the deployment of BPX enabled Woodland Hills to save a significant amount of money by purchasing computers without hard drives.

For the start of the 2003-04 school year, Woodland Hills replaced approximately half its multimedia computers with 1,000 diskless workstations running VenturCom’s BXP software. The old systems featured their own floppy, CD, and hard disk drives, and without monitors, they cost the district approximately $700 each. The new systems feature only motherboards (with integrated network interface cards), 1.7 GHz Intel Celeron processors, 512 megabytes of RAM, and power supplies, and cost about $240 each.

Iachini noted that Woodland Hills’ greatest and most easily quantifiable benefit in implementing BXP is the money it saved in hardware costs–a savings that enabled the district to achieve full payback on its investment within the first year.

“Our installation process tells a lot about the dependability of BXP,” Iachini added. “We had BXP all set to go, but the hardware–the 1,000 workstations we bought from a hardware vendor–didn’t arrive until four days before school was going to open. We used volunteers to help open boxes and carry the workstations to the desks. Even though we only had four days, we were able to get all 1,000 up and running on BXP by the time school opened. I can’t imagine how long it would have taken us without it. We never would have come close to being ready when school opened.”

In addition to the up-front hardware savings, Woodland Hills’ repair costs are down, and system dependability has improved. With fewer installed components and none particularly susceptible to accidental damage or vandalism, ongoing hardware repair and replacement costs have been substantially reduced, Iachini said.

“We are able to run all of our applications using stripped-down hardware, without any negative impact on their performance,” he said. “In fact, BXP is as dependable as chalk. When a teacher goes to the blackboard to write something, the chalk never fails. That’s the case with our technology now. With BXP, reliability and dependability have really increased.”

There are far fewer requests for repair and maintenance, and the problem-diagnosis process is much simpler as well.

“With the old setup, we had to run many more diagnostics to determine what was wrong with a PC. With BXP, it really comes down to just four things: First, reboot the machine by turning it off and back on. If that doesn’t solve the problem, we check the memory chip. Third, we check the mother board, and if none of those things have worked, we switch out the box. We plug a new one in, turn it on, and the user is ready to go,” Iachini said.

Discovery, testing, and adoption

Steve Muiter, a member of Iachini’s IT staff, conducted the initial research for an alternative to deploying fully-loaded PCs. He envisioned a better, simpler approach–one that removed the disks from client workstations and centralized system administration.

The problem was finding a solution that would work in Woodland Hills’ Windows-based environment. His research included a Google search for “virtual hard drive,” which ultimately led him to VenturCom’s web site.

“I requested a trial version [of BPX], ran a couple of tests on it, and it was amazing,” said Muiter.

Though impressed with his initial findings, Muiter was anxious to test BXP’s ability to scale. How many servers would Woodland Hills need to buy to support the more than 2,000 client systems the district employs?

After the success of his initial evaluation, Muiter contacted VenturCom and purchased 30 BXP licenses and a server. When that worked as promised, he tried 60 clients off a single server and experienced no problems. Finally, he tried 90 clients off the same server. He invited students to test the machines using any or all of the applications available to them–word processing, surfing the internet, number crunching.

“When that last trial turned up no issues, we felt certain we had found what we were looking for,” Muiter said.

Woodland Hills’ BXP implementation includes six servers running about 1,000 client systems, for an average of 175 to 200 clients per server–an average that few alternative architectures can match.

Alternatives also don’t offer the local processing power needed to support the full range of productivity, graphical, and educational software enjoyed by Woodland Hills’ students and faculty, or the option of using USB or other peripheral devices.

Once up and running, the new systems look identical to the older systems. The diskless systems run all of the schools’ applications with excellent dependability. And students are beginning to overcome the removal of such devices as floppy and CD drives by using newer USB memory devices that are faster, more affordable, and have greater memory capacity than the devices they replaced.

Updates to the new systems are much faster than those made to the old systems. For example, shortly after the BXP deployment, the IT staff needed to update one of West Junior High’s server “images”–the operating system and applications serving 220 client systems–to install new printer drivers.

Under their older operating model, each of the client systems had to be reconfigured before such changes could be made via multicast. Muiter estimates that this process would have taken up to 15 minutes per machine–more than two days–with the old method. Using BXP, however, the district’s IT team was able to make the necessary changes to the image on the server and know that when the student PCs were restarted, the changes would be put into effect.

“Our older systems were configured to boot from their C drives,” explained Muiter. “Before they could join the multicast session, we had to change the boot order of each machine to its floppy drive first–which, by the way, was often found to be inoperative due to wear or vandalism. After the multicast, we had to change the boot order again and name each machine by hand as it rejoined the domain.”

One of the district’s initial concerns was the bandwidth drain it would take to send the entire system configuration and software down the pipe to each PC. But Woodland Hills officials discovered that booting each computer over a high-speed network was actually faster than booting from a disk drive.

The BXP implementation was not without challenges. The size of the Woodland Hills deployment and the unique needs of some of the district’s software applications necessitated a thorough testing of the solution’s ability to scale, as well as the creation of some unique batch files to make it all work smoothly.

Also, the Woodland Hills IT team is still educating faculty and staff about the importance of turning the BXP-powered machines off at night, as a restart is the only way the new machines receive updates from their servers.

But “working with VenturCom on this has been a real pleasure,” said Iachini. “They are extremely knowledgeable and have been very responsive to our needs.”

Links: Woodland Hills School District
http://www.whsd.k12.pa.us

VenturCom Inc.
http://www.vci.com

About the Author:

eSchool News