Case study: Enumclaw School District moves to VDI to support standardized testing

The Enumclaw School District in in Washington State implemented VDI to support state testing for students.

The Enumclaw SchoolDistrict in Washington State was the first district in the state to implement the state’s new online testing standard for reading. The district’s IT department had to determine how their technology infrastructure was going to support these new required tests across eight separate schools and support offices with 4,200 students and staff members.

The IT team decided upon a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solution. Chad Marlow, Technology Director for the Emumclaw School District said, “We decided to go the VDI route to solve some of our software management issues, in addition to the immediate problem of the state testing.”

There were other factors behind the decision. The first was money. The school district struggles with decreased funding as years go by. Marlow said VDI was a great solution to this problem because it allowed him to “put in refurbished desktops or zero clients or thin clients that can last eight to ten years and maintain the same excellent user experience that they had initially.”

Another goal was also to give every student the same experience. “Every student who logs into VDI has the same experience,” according to Marlow. “They’re all running the same software versions. They all have the same software versions.” This also makes it easy to troubleshoot on the technology side.

 “When I arrived here at the organization six years ago we were a complete physical infrastructure with no virtual infrastructure at all,” remembers  Marlow. “Within a couple of years we virtualized all of our servers and we started to think about how we could solve the problem of an unmanaged environment.”

Selection process

VDI was an easy choice for the school district according to Marlow. “At the time we virtualized our servers, we went with VMware. Citrix and Microsoft with its Hyper-V were just coming into the landscape.  We made the choice to go with VMware when we virtualized our servers. VDI with a VMware solution was a no brainer to us. We didn’t want to run two architectures. So running VMware view and the VDI infrastructure was really easy for us.”

The second decision they made was in regard to storage.  “When we virtualized our servers, we purchased a SAN with spinning disks, sort of a legacy storage array. It was kind of innovative at the time but that was three or four years ago,” according to Marlow.

Since their existing solution was getting a little long in the tooth and they knew from previous research that VDI requires quite a few I/Os if you’re running 500-1000 desktops. So they started researching solutions and came up with three types:

  • The legacy
  • The hybrid combining spinning disks and flash-based storage
  • 100% flash-based storage

“We didn’t really know what we wanted at the time so we released a request for information (RFI) to 12-15 manufacturers of SANs and the vendors that sell them.” recounts Marlow.

They narrowed the list down to two both Tintri and Nexgen. Both of those met requirements.

“We did a ‘bakeoff’ between Tintri and Nexgen, where they both provided demo units and actually had them installed in our data center at the same time,” Marlow said.

“We ran the exact same tests against both of them. Tintri showed itself to be the right solution at a great price point,” according to Marlow. “It was hard not to choose Tintri because they were far and way the best. We also did some hardware tests. We pulled drives. We pulled power supplies and processing modules. Each time we did something, we got a call from Tintri support that something was wrong with our unit. With other vendors, we had to initiate the support call. With Tintri, it was them initiating the support call for us.”

The TintriT540 appliance the school district has in place stores 100% of their virtual environment including both servers and desktops.

VDI pilots and deployment

Marlow and his team conducted two VDI pilots, he explains, “When we first purchased the unit, we did an initial pilot with about thirty desktops and we made them available for one of the teachers out in the high school to use. We had his students do some testing with that. Once that was successful then we went ahead and deployed 250 virtual desktops and had them available for students to use.”

The school district deploys mobile carts of laptops for student use across their schools. Students log into their VDI testing environment using those laptops to take the Washington State standardized tests.

From there they initiated a second phase, which rolled out an additional three hundred desktops, which are available in student labs throughout campus. Then they rolled out to  the secretaries and other building administrators in different schools.

Marlowe said, “We have a relatively complex software environment, so we wanted to start small. We created what we call a general education pool. It’s all of the applications a student would need when they log in. If they’re not a student who requires AutoCAD or Photoshop or another specialized application, they can get that desktop in labs or in classrooms. We took a lowest-common-denominator approach to find a package of software that would meet most student needs.”

After completing an acceptance test plan, Marlow and his team are targeting other school district areas for VDI. For example, Enumclaw School District’s Career Technical Education (CTE) program is a very large and specialized department that uses complex software including AutoCAD and Adobe products. CTE is due to move to VDI after phase 2 of the overall VDI desktop deployment.

One challenge thus far in the district’s VDI rollout is to provision a single application to a VDI desktop. Marlowe is also looking at building up their wireless network to better support the additional traffic that VDI desktops generate.

Looking forward, Marlow sees another three hundred desktops going to VDI by the spring 2014 in support of more state educational online testing and predicts that by Spring 2015 that 80% of the school districts virtual desktops will be virtualized.

Cost savings

Marlow says, “The biggest cost savings for us is at the building level. Our buildings struggle with doing computer replacements. What we can do now is, instead of outfitting a lab of thirty physical machines and having to replace those every four to five to six years, we can install zero  clients and, for a lower initial cost, have a ten-year life span of that lab so the ROI is huge. Once you install those zero clients, they provide the same user experience and the same quality over that ten-year life span.”

While the Enumclaw School District had to provide high-powered servers in their data center, the move to VDI still saved them money in their building and district budgets.

VDI as an educational platform

Marlow and his team were successful in implementing VDI. Students are now able to take the Washington State reading test online without a hitch. In fact, the Enumclaw School District’s VDI implementation is being used as an example for other Washington State school districts of how VDI can help school districts save on support costs in days of ever tightening budgets.

By Will Kelly

Will Kelly is a freelance technical writer and analyst currently focusing on enterprise mobility, Bring Your Own Device (BYOD), and the consumerization of IT. He has also written about cloud computing, Big Data, virtualization, project management ap...