By William T. Evans
Virtualization is a popular topic when it comes to information technology development in the data center. Some of the drive for this is based on the growth and increased popularity of technologies such as SANs, blade servers, and the recent developments with iSCSI. However, SAN and blade server technology only enhance virtualization; they do not drive it solely. Virtualization has a large place in the corporate environment, but it is more recently being introduced to educational environments.
Virtualization, in general, is a process of providing services in a logical, and not physical, way. When it comes to server technology, virtualization is the process of turning a physical server box into a "generic host" and allowing more than one logical server operating system reside on it. Therefore, a single piece of server hardware could be running Windows, Linux, and Novell. It could be a web server, domain controller, and a database server, each running on completely independent operating systems. This is accomplished by first installing a special piece of software on the server that interacts with the hardware. Then, from that software each virtual server operating system is installed and necessary resources are allocated to it. Each virtual server is completely independent and secured from the other.
Why virtualization in K-12 environments?
In non-education environments the benefits that virtualization bring are:
- Improved server hardware utilization
- Granular resource allocation
- Simplified server management
- Improved flexibility
- Streamlined disaster recovery management
- Reduced total cost of ownership (TCO)
Most, if not all, of the above advantages apply to educational environments as well. In a simpler way, the advantages for education environments are:
- Consolidation (space used)
- Cost (hardware devices and power consumption)
- Disaster recovery (emergency fail-over or recovery)
- Development (testing environments)
Although disaster recovery is important, many educational environments do not have the budget or resources to fully implement it as it is done in the corporate arena. Therefore, consolidation, cost, and development are the greater drives for using virtualization in educational environments. Consolidation is a powerful motivator because space is always an issue in K-12. School buildings were not designed 40 or 50 years ago with technology in mind. Data centers and distribution closets often exist in make-shift in storage closets or even in classrooms. Virtualization's ability to decrease the number of required servers is certainly a benefit. Any organization, K-12 included, benefits from cost savings. Costs are reduced because less space, power, and HVAC are needed. The development benefits are a new horizon for K-12. In most K-12 environments testing and development does not happen the way that it does in corporate environments. Cost and lack of space often contribute to this. However, virtualization can take a single server and convert it into a complete test network. That is truly a powerful driver for its introduction into K-12.
How Virtualization is used in one K-12 School District
One school district was interested in taking advantage of virtualization technology. They soon found out that deploying virtualization with enterprise level functionality (dynamic resource allocation, automated disaster recovery, and automated provisioning) required a SAN and restructuring of their data center infrastructure. Since they didn't have the budge for a SAN, and were new to virtualization, a different approach was taken. They focused on taking advantage of consolidation. There were three workstations (P4 1.0GHz and 512MB RAM) that were running Windows Server 2003 and their individual resource utilization was under 30%. One was a web server, the second was a print server, and the third was a Linux-based monitoring system. The district could not afford to replace all three with true server hardware. Instead they purchased one server (Dual Xeon 3.0GHz and 4.0GB RAM). On that new server VMware was installed. Then, the three virtual servers were placed on it. After the upgrade they then had a single piece of hardware, instead of three, that was much more reliable as could easily handle the workload. Those three workstations were then able to be used elsewhere.
Due to the success of the virtualization project, the school district moved further into technology. At a later date they set up an older (decommissioned) server to support six virtual servers. That server was used to set up a development platform. They could then test new applications, change procedures, upgrades and migration scenarios without affecting the production environment. Being that VMware supports internal network connectivity between each server session (without a physical network connection), the district was able to keep their production and testing environments separate and secure.
Virtualization technology's place in the data center is certainly growing. Although many corporate entities have adopted this technology, many educational environments have not. Because of the advantages to using virtualization all organizations, especially education, need begin considering its place in their environments. Even though K-12 educational environments will use virtualization in a different way then corporate will—it will soon become a necessity.