VDI and BYOD Help Teachers and Students Succeed
By Maggie O'Neill
Business leaders have known for years the value of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and bring-your-own-device (BYOD) initiatives, but school districts are just starting to offer similar technologies in the classroom. One of those school districts is the York County School Division in Virginia, which first built its VDI infrastructure and then implemented a BYOD program.
Douglas Meade, the district's director of IT, points out that "some people put the cart before the horse." Without VDI, he explains, BYOD is basically just linking more computing devices to the Internet. With VDI, mobile devices brought in by students and teachers can not only log on to the Internet, but also can access all the applications, files and information that are available in a classroom computer or computer lab.
"VDI levels the playing field and makes all devices--whether school-owned or BYOD—equal when it comes to accessing information," Meade says.
Of course, this initiative took planning. The school district began small, implementing VDI at a district high school and middle school, using money available through federal revitalization funds.
"By the fall of 2009, our sleeves were rolled up and we were in knee deep testing different technologies," Meade says.
In less than two years, all the schools in the district had VDI, provided through a Citrix-based XenApp and XenDesktop environment via a Windows platform. To accomplish that, the district placed servers and filers at every school site, using NetApp's fabric-attached storage (FAS) 3140 and 2040 filers.
"We chose NetApp at the time of the VDI project," Meade reports. "We had a couple of small storage systems before, but with virtualization you need a lot of storage. NetApp was the only storage solution at the time to do NFS [network file system] out of the box."
The school district now has 218 physical servers and 349 virtual servers, but not all of them are used for VDI.
"Because we were not sure of the bandwidth demands, we did not centralize the initial deployment," Meade continues. "When we start to rethink this in the next year or two, we'll look at centralizing a lot more than we did originally."
At the York County School Division, virtualization has meant breaking down barriers for its 900 teachers and 12,300 students. After logging in, students can access applications—such as Adobe Creative Suite 5 for the graphics class—that they might never purchase on their own.
It's a change for teachers, too. "They no longer have to lug anything home," Meade says. "They never have to remember to copy a file onto a thumb drive or carry home a notebook computer. They can go home and log in from any computer at their house and have access to everything they have at school."
Bringing on BYOD
After the VDI deployment was in place, the school district implemented its BYOD program. (They call it BYOT, for bring your own technology.) It was prototyped in the spring of 2011 and is now in its third year.
The district's BYOT program allows students, teachers and other staff with any type of mobile device—smartphone, tablet, laptop—to access the district's wireless service and get online. It sized its wireless IP address scheme based on an average of three devices per person.
Additionally, the district uses a metropolitan network service available through Verizon. The metropolitan network provides 100MB service at all its schools and 1GB service at one school and the school board office.
One of the greatest challenges to the district's VDI and the BYOD program is the need for teachers to learn how to use these technologies effectively. Meade chalks that up to "the normal growing pains of bringing something new and exciting into the classroom."
And those efforts are being recognized: The York County School Division received the Pinnacle of Excellence award for its work from the Association of School Business Officials International.
"In students and teachers, we have a ready-made audience who immediately benefit from having this access," Meade says. "Students have homework and projects to complete, and teachers often need to take work home with them.
"The teachers and students appreciate the access—anywhere, anytime and on any device."