How Ontario school board’s IT staff gained 2,000 hours…and their lives back

James Proulx had a man-power problem.

The manager of ICT services for 50 schools scattered across 12,000 square kilometers in Ontario – stretching from near Kingston in the west to Cornwall in the east and surrounding on Ottawa in the north – found his team of technicians were reduced to mere upgrade couriers.

The Catholic District School Board of Eastern Ontario had only nine technicians to keep their computer labs running smoothly across an area the size of Israel’s Negev desert.

To upgrade the 3,300 desktop computers just twice a year, staff spent one-fifth of their total hours worked.

“That became extremely difficult to manage,” Proulx says. “I could see that there was tons of time being wasted. I lacked technical resources – each technician takes care of 450 computers, and I needed a way to take some of their time back.”

To find that time, Proulx broke the mould of his current software delivery method. Instead of installing the same image on each PC, he now uses application virtualization to centralize application hosting in their main Kemptville-based offices.

Microsoft’s (MSFT) Application Virtualization 4.2 Streaming Server has been rolled out at secondary schools since September, and elementary schools will finish deployment by year’s end.

The number of work hours saved has been significant, Proulx reports.

“Now it’s just one technician spending at most five hours a week,” he says, “and that’s managing the entire image daily instead of twice a year.”

Instead of updating each separate computer with a new image, staff just updates the application on the centralized server to have the change pushed to all users.

Overall, virtualizing application delivery has saved staff over 2,000 hours per year, the IT manager estimates. It also saves them some headaches thanks to the simplicity offered by a virtualized environment.

Application virtualization basically means a program is run in a bubble. The program is given its own dedicated hardware resources and blocked off from interactions with other applications – even the operating system.

It’s a software deployment trend that will soon become more popular, experts say.

“One of the big challenges in software management on servers is the configuration cross-talk between applications,” says Andrew Warfield, technical director in the virtualization management division of Fort Lauderdale, Fla.-based Citrix Systems Inc.

“The more servers you have to install on a physical server, the more risk there is of them interfering with each other.”

With the growing complexity, organizations requiring various applications often need to hire more skilled help to keep things running smoothly, he adds.

But virtualization offers simplicity by running an application in its own silo, he said.

“Desktop virtualization makes sense and will probably [surpass] server virtualization in a couple of years,” says according to Rob Geller, senior product manager at Microsoft Canada.

“As we experience poor economic conditions, this is one of the tools that organizations can use to cut costs.”

For the grade-schoolers logging in on computer labs across eastern Ontario to access educational programs or do their homework, the experience is mostly seamless.

Users in a Windows environment just have to double-click their program and it is launched before you can say “virtualization.”

“Let’s say this application has just been added to the network and I’m streaming it down for the first time,” Geller says. “There might be a delay of five or six seconds.”

The end client pulls necessary information from the server and launches the program as soon as enough of it has been streamed.

The desktop then stores that information in cache and the application will launch even faster on the next use, as only changes will have to be pulled down from the server, he adds.

The desktop machines in school computer labs have become simplified as a result, Proulx says. Now each machine is loaded up only with Windows XP, anti-virus software, and the virtualization client.

The virtualization aspect was the most attractive feature of using Microsoft’s software delivery method, Proulx explains. He knew it would help run some of the Ministry of Education-mandated programs that teachers relied on.

“Some of our software could be five to 10 years old,” Proulx says. “It’s very finicky and the fact we can run it in a bubble has been very useful.”

But the main benefit Proulx identifies is his workers being freed up for more meaningful tasks. The technicians are still driving around from school to school, but now it is to help solve problems and assist teachers in using applications.

“There’s a lot of direct, one-on-one education going on,” the manager says.

Technicians are embracing their new role as facilitators, freed from the tedious upgrade tasks. They received some re-training so they were prepared for the new roles and welcome the helping hand with managing 450 computers each.

“Managing that number of computers is not an easy task, so anything to help them is well-received,” Proulx says. “They can’t wait to get this done at elementary schools. At the start of the project it was me pushing, and now they’re pushing.”

A real-time monitoring dashboard that displays the health of applications should also help technicians identify problems and respond before the help desk ever gets a call, according to Geller.

Administrators can run reports against the monitoring tool to get specific information about applications and their usage levels.

“Because they’re being streamed and you have real-time monitoring, you can really fine-tune your software licensing and it is easy to dispose of applications,” Geller adds.

Though Proulx hasn’t cut any costs by identifying where fewer licenses are required, he says there may be potential for that with some Adobe applications used by the board.

Proulx pays an additional $4 per computer for the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Package (MDOP) license that comes with the virtualization software – on top of his previous agreements to run Windows and Microsoft Office.

Microsoft offers educational discounts, and corporate licensing fees would be about $10 per computer for the same package, Geller says.

The package also includes Microsoft’s Asset Inventory Service, Advanced Group Policy Management, Diagnostic and Recovery Tool, and Desktop Error Monitoring.

Proulx plans to eventually make use of the other tools available in the suite – for tasks such as inventory management, for instance.

“Right now our technicians are just going around and counting,” the manager says. “I think it’s a waste of their time.”

But the suite’s inventory management tool offers a more accurate and automatic way to keep track of the board’s hardware, he says.

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