Pawtucket School District: A Virtual Iron Success Story

Michael St. Jean is the Director of Technology at the Pawtucket School Department in Rhode Island.
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

Michael St. Jean is the Director of Technology at the Pawtucket School Department in Rhode Island. We spoke about his organization's use of technology from Virtual Iron.Thanks Michael for working with my ever-changing schedule.

Please tell me who you are and a bit about your organization.

The Pawtucket School Department can be found in in Pawtucket, Rhode Island. It serves over 9000 students and 1300 faculty and staff, throughout 17 schools and an administration building. This is an urban district which creates funding issues. Funding can be hard to get and is not always consistent. As with other locations around the country, the schools, the city and the state governmental organizations are all facing financial stresses.

What does your organization do that needs what Virtual Iron offers?

The school system has been moving to thin-client and server-based computing to enhance security and reduce overall costs. The District wanted to get out of the business of supporting desktop systems. They started this journey several years ago and found that the road to this type of environment has had its challenges. They retrofitted 1000 ancient desktops so that they could PXE boot Linux. This allowed them to have a second life as thin clients. Later as these systems reached end of life, they were replaced with real thin clients.

One of the challenges has been the growth in the number of servers required. Each high school has one Novell Netware workgroup server and six Windows 2003 Enterprise R2 Terminal Servers. Each junior high school has one Netware and four Windows 2003 Terminal Servers. Each elementary school has one Netware and one to two Windows 2003 Terminal Servers.The Administration Building houses an additional twenty or so terminal, workgroup,web, communications, data, and application servers. District-wide the IT staff maintains eighty servers, supporting 2000 workstations, 1600 of which are dedicated thin clients, with a need for further expansion.The environment was increasingly painful and challenging to managed.

As they simplified the desktop, they soon found that they needed to simplify the server environment as well. This lead to an exploration of the use of virtual processing software in general and virtual machine software in specific to consolidate the workloads onto a smaller number of servers.

What products were considered before Virtual Iron was selected?

In early 2007, Michael St. Jean, the Director of Technology, began researching and testing server virtualization technologies. Initially there were two products he looked at:VMware ESX and VMware Server.

Many of the documents he read off the Internet indicated that VMware's ESX Server, with its modified Linux Kernel, bare metal install, near native performance, and management tools, was the only way to go. He then looked at the price. Even though the IT office would be saving money on the physical servers consolidated, they all felt they would be spending too much on ESX, Virtual Infrastructure licenses and annual support contracts.

St. Jean then turned to VMware Server. He told me that he liked the price (VMware server is free). The management utilities, especially with the web-based extensions were also very nice. It had multi-platform capabilities - enabling it to support Linux Guests on Windows Hosts, and Windows Guests on Linux Hosts. St. Jean was able to build, copy, migrate and destroy a dozen virtual machines with no problems.Overall, VMware Server was very easy to use and very stable.

In his next phase of testing St. Jean used VMware Server to virtualize a Windows 2003 Terminal Server Guest on a 64-bit Linux Host. RDP Performance was great for one user. There were no performance issues with remote desktop connections for two users running an Office-type application. However, once these users launched multi-media rich sessions in a web browser, things began to slow down significantly on the virtual server compared to the same processes running on a physical terminal server.

VMware Server's design restricted the session to smaller loads and was not a suitable platform to virtualize high load servers, specifically a terminal server. St. Jean was looking for something cost effective, but with good performance, so he began testing the open source Xen hypervisor shipping with Novell SUSE Enterprise Server SP1. The Xen Kernel install went cleanly on a 64-bit SUSE Host. He then built various Windows and Linux virtual guests and replicated the Terminal Server test running multiple RDP sessions streaming audio and video. Performance was very good.

There was one problem though.The management tools were very rudimentary. As a free product, the graphical interface was functional, but St. Jean was not comfortable having to drop to a command-line interface to perform higher level tasks. Liking the Xen technology, he continued to research solutions and kept coming across Virtual Iron Software.So he decided to give it a try.

St. Jean was pleasantly surprised that a real human being answered when he called Virtual Iron's main telephone number. He also was impressed by the fact that a trial license key was in his Inbox before the telephone conversation ended. He downloaded the software and was able to set up a workable infrastructure in 10 minutes without ever having read the product manual. Later in our conversation, he pointed out that the only time that his staff has been compelled to read the documentation was when the were setting up a server to support iSCSI. No one in the IT department had ever done something like that and so the documentation was very helpful.

Why was Virtual Iron selected over the competition?

The trial of Virtual Iron's software was so encouraging and the management capabilities so robust that, after reviewing all the alternatives, St. Jean and the IT staff decided Virtual Iron was the best product, regardless of price. Even though it cost more than the free products, it had additional performance and management capabilities. But this cost was still significantly less than comparable offerings by VMware or Citrix.Working with its solution provider, the school department purchased its initial Virtual Iron Enterprise Extended licenses.

What tangible benefits has your organization gotten from the deployment of Virtual Iron?

The previous generation was focused on getting out of the desktop systems business by virtue of implementing thin clients. At this point the District no longer had to deal with desktop operating system licenses or virus protection for those client systems. This caused the District to save a great deal of money on desktop systems, desktop operating systems, and virus protection software. St. Jean believes that the District saved over $800 thousand dollars in this generation.

St. Jean points out that virtualization this is their "next generation" move. This next generations is focused on reducing their server sprawl. As they deploy Virtual Iron, and look to blades to replace discrete servers and terminal servers, their costs will reduce even further.

The District has seen a significant savings in administrative costs and has been able to continue to manage the environment with a very small staff.

Do you have any advice for others who may be facing similar challenges?

St. Jean said "for us to make this possible ins pite of budgetary downturns has only been possible because we continue to invest in the infrastruture. This has allowed the District to be flexible in what and where everything is deployed." They also haven't been afraid to think out of the box and apply technology creatively. He'd recommend that organizations follow a similar path -- follow a best of breed approach.

A bit about Virtual Iron

Founded in 2003, Virtual Iron provides virtual processing software and management software that allows organizations to create and manage their virtual infrastructure. Organizations use Virtual Iron for consolidation, rapid provisioning, business continuity, workload management and policy-based automation.

The company leverages industry standards, open source, and processors with built-in hardware assisted virtualization to deliver open and economically attractive virtualization alternatives to existing, proprietary solutions.

Virtual Iron's product and technology leverages common, open standards to increase customer choice, reduce their cost and minimize their risk of proprietary lock in.Virtual Iron is led by an experienced management team and backed by top-tier investors. The company is well by the industry and partners with most of the major processor, hardware and operating system vendors, including AMD, HP, IBM, Intel, Novell and Sun.

Snapshot Analysis

I've often written about Virtual Iron and have commented that their products should be considered if an organization is considering different ways to create a virtual datacenter environment.

Editorial standards