Subscription-based cloud helps Pike County extend computers to more students

Through a subscription-based cloud-computing model, Kentucky’s Pike County Schools brought its student-to-computer ratio down to 2 to 1 without spending millions of dollars.

“We were running into a case of [having a] limited budget, and still not wanting to cut back on our goals for our students as far as technology is concerned,” said Maritta Horne, the district’s chief information officer and director of technology.

“Purchasing machines was a problem,” Horne said. “If I were to purchase 1,400 machines, it would be well in excess of $1 million for my district. It’s just not feasible at this time.”

With cloud-computing software from Desktone Inc., the district transformed its relic computers that were ready for the scrap heap into fast, fully functioning virtual machines.

The district could revive these old machines because cloud computing eliminates the need for a hard drive on the local computer. In a cloud environment, the processing happens at the server level, not locally at the desktop. The desktop machine is simply a conduit, or dumb terminal, that receives processing power and software delivered from the server, or the “cloud.”

“With this process, it doesn’t even matter if they don’t have a hard drive,” Horne said of the machines. “As long as the CD-ROM works or the USB works, we can get them on the network.”

Pike County’s technology staff carry a boot image, on either a CD or a USB key, which tells the machine how to access the district’s cloud. If a computer is too old or too costly to fix, they simply pop in the CD and make it work.

Not only has the district saved money by reusing its old computers, but maintenance costs have gone down tremendously, too.

“Typically, we would have between 150 and 200 work orders a month with a regular system,” Horne said, “and now we are down to a fraction of that, a quarter of that.”

Because Pike County uses a subscription-based model for its cloud computing, its IT staff members don’t have to worry about server maintenance or configuration. “That’s a major savings for me. Not only do I not have to have the expertise on site for my staff, but I don’t have to maintain [the servers], either,” Horne said.

Electricity consumption has decreased as well. The computers no longer draw as much power, because the hard drives are not running.

In this model of cloud computing, also known as Desktop as a Service (DaaS), everything needed on a traditional desktop computer resides on the server: the processing power, the operating system, the software, and the user’s files and data. All the user needs is a screen, a keyboard, and a communication device–such as a laptop, PC, mobile telephone, or some type of handheld device–to access the virtualized desktop.

Pike County has 10,200 students and is the largest county geographically in Kentucky, covering 700 square miles. The district has 27 K-12 schools, including two “day” treatment facilities and three vocational and technical facilities. Sixty percent of classrooms have “smart” classroom tools, including interactive whiteboards, projection devices, and document cameras.

With its cloud, Pike County serves up about 5,000 desktop images. Every student who logs onto the server gets a separate image, consisting of whatever they are working on or requesting from the server.

Students have access to Microsoft Office, portals for education software, and storage space for their work. Teachers have attendance, grade reporting, and lesson planning software as well. Everyone has a secure login.

The district connects to its cloud, which is hosted by ICC Technology Partners, a subcontractor of IBM, via a direct fiber connection. “We don’t have bottleneck issues,” Horne said. In fact, she said, this is the best solution she’s encountered so far. There is no degradation between systems, and the end user doesn’t experience any problems.

“We’ve had students simultaneously sitting together,” Horne said, by way of example. “One would be on a virtual machine, and one would be on a Pentium dual-core processing machine with a [gigabyte] of RAM or whatever. There is no difference in the state of connectivity,” she said.

“At one point, we noticed we had 2,500 of our students online at one time…to this particular server, and we didn’t have a problem,” Horne said.

Before settling on its current cloud-computing solution, Pike County used a thin-client setup with Citrix Systems and the open-source Linux operating system for years, but neither met the district’s needs.

With Citrix, she said, students had problems printing their files. The software also needed to use some of each computer’s processing power, and some of the machines were too slow, Horne said.

Linux offered limited applications and lacked support for specific drivers. Also, some of the applications would slow down the system, Horne said. In addition, Pike County encountered problems with audio and with students saving work to their portfolios using Linux.

“This year, we are able to do all of that,” Horne said. “The audio is not an issue. The directories for students to save their work to are now visible to all students.”

One of the biggest advantages to cloud computing for Pike County is having enough computers on location to do computer-based formative assessment. Periodically, Pike County students are assessed online, and then they’re assigned remedial or enrichment work as needed through software from American Education Corp.

“We didn’t have enough machines capable of doing this, so when we would go out to test our students, and set up testing, we’d actually have to physically bring equipment in to do that,” Horne said. “We got it done, but it took us two months to test all of our students.”

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