Serving more than 45,200 students in the fastest growing school district in the state of Texas, Soccoro Independent School District (Socorro ISD) maintains a high standard in technology offered to students. Socorro ISD has earned Texas Education Agency Met Standards status three years in a row. Leading the way in innovative instruction, their mission is to optimize their students’ academic, artistic, athletic, and interpersonal skills. Socorro ISD is also continually optimizing its technology as the district aims to equip all its users with cutting edge workspaces, software, and security.
Like most independent school districts, funding at Socorro ISD is limited. The IT staff is accustomed to making budgets and hardware stretch, putting in extra effort to ensure the best experience for students and staff. “We really don’t retire computer hardware,” says Hector Reyna, director of technology services for Socorro ISD in El Paso, Texas. “We may move legacy systems around, but as long as they’re running, we keep using them in some capacity.” With some legacy hardware approaching 10 years old, Socorro ISD had repurposed their district’s old hardware in every way imaginable.
“We used to hear frequent complaints about some of the older systems,” says David Akers, Socorro’s team leader for technical support services. Repurposing older hardware may benefit the short-term budget, but it often leads to challenges. Some software, including the Accelerated Reader assessment program performed poorly on older systems. The sluggish performance of instructional applications was affecting students. “We had reached the point where aging hardware was causing problems in our classrooms that were impacting education,” Akers says. Most of the computers used by the district are more than six years old. The computer labs at Socorro ISD were being used less as teachers and students became frustrated with the outdated equipment.
Having recently secured grant money for new desktops from Project Lead the Way (PLTW), a nonprofit organization that offers grants helping schools purchase computer equipment required for teaching the PLTW curriculum. PLTW offers curriculum and professional development in STEM subjects for K-12 students. Socorro ISD considered Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), and turned to Logical Front to discuss options.
“The bond could have funded around 3,000 new computers,” says Oscar Dominguez, manager of systems administration, for the district. “The more we looked into VDI, the more we saw an opportunity to take the same money and make a bigger impact on a broader scale across our campuses.”
“some vendors brought us bits and pieces of a solution,” said Akers, “the only vendor offering a complete solution—from servers, storage, and switches to support and deployment services—was Logical Front and Dell.”
Socorro ISD began by partnering with Logical Front. Together they rolled out Dell OEM Citrix software with Dell Deployment Services. First, the district deployed 16 Dell PowerEdge M710HD blades within a PowerEdge M1000e modular blade enclosure. Next, they rolled out six more blade enclosures, each housing 16 PowerEdge M620 blades.
“Moving to the 12th-generation blades brought a lot of advantages,” Akers says. “They can host more virtual desktops than the previous generation. Plus, they boot faster, which can make a difference when we’re doing maintenance on all 112 blades.”
The blades connect to four Dell EqualLogic PS6510X iSCSI storage area networks (SANs) for storage.
“Scalability is a major benefit of Dell EqualLogic storage,” Akers says. “We started with one SAN, then added three more. Standing them up was straightforward, and adding capacity is no problem. I’m able to stand up the storage for a new blade enclosure within 10 minutes. That includes installing the hardware, setting up security for the storage, setting IP addresses and getting it running. It’s a point-and-click process that requires no downtime for our virtual desktops.”
Managing the storage has also been easier than they expected. “Since setup, the Dell EqualLogic storage has required very little management or monitoring,” Dominguez says. “The only management we’ve had to do is set up new LUNs for the new enclosures, which takes 15 to 20 minutes. We occasionally check on the health of the SANs, but for the most part, this storage solution has been ‘set it up and forget it.’” Akers agrees, adding: “When I compare the EqualLogic storage with our EMC VNX arrays, the EqualLogic SANs are simple to use.”
The project to implement VDI overlapped a scheduled network upgrade. “We were seeing some pretty high saturation on the network during peak times, when a lot of students are surfing the Internet for research papers or streaming multimedia content,” Akers says. “We needed to accelerate network performance to support the VDI infrastructure.”
Socorro ISD was running both iSCSI and Fibre Channel. “Instead of upgrading our Fibre Channel to 8-Gigabit, we decided to try 10-Gigabit iSCSI,” said Akers. “It’s very cost-effective, and at this point it’s been working great for eight months.” Dell Force10 S4810 switches provide 10-Gigabit connectivity for the EqualLogic iSCSI SANs. The blade enclosures use Dell PowerConnect M8024 switches, and Brocade VDX6720 switches route IP traffic.
“According to our networking staff, the VDI initiative hasn’t increased bandwidth utilization on our wide area network—only within the data center,” Dominguez says. “In fact, we’ve seen a decrease in WAN utilization. Video, multimedia software and other applications are called from server to server now. We’ve eliminated the one-off streaming of applications from servers to desktops.”
Socorro ISD now runs 3,600 virtual desktops. With built-in scalability, they retain the hardware and software licensing capacity to increase that number to 8,200- nearly tripling the number of traditional desktops they could have purchased for the same amount. “This initiative has enabled our campuses to repurpose a lot of older equipment,” Akers says. “We’re running Windows 7 and Microsoft Office 2010 just fine on computers that couldn’t support them without our Dell-based VDI platform.”
The virtual desktops have saved time for students and staff. “Booting some of our computers took 10 to 20 minutes before, but the VDI initiative has reduced that to around 2 minutes,” Dominguez says. “And our new environment enables applications to load and run much faster than they would on our legacy hardware without VDI.”
Before the VDI project, the computer labs at Socorro ISD were often empty. “If hardware is slow to boot or performance is poor, kids and teachers tend to become frustrated,” Akers says. “A middle school teacher told me she hadn’t used a particular computer lab in two years because the hardware ‘didn’t work.’ Since the VDI rollout, our older computers are being used. In fact, sometimes teachers can’t tell which labs have new hardware and which are running VDI on older systems. We are helping teachers provide better instruction with the VDI environment that Logical Front and Dell helped us build.”
Some hardware maintenance is unavoidable, but introducing VDI has streamlined software management. “We recently needed to add an Internet link to every VDI desktop across all 43 campuses,” Akers says. “It took us 10 minutes to set up, then we asked our VDI users to reboot at their convenience. When they rebooted, the link was there. Making this type of change to 3,600 traditional client computers would have taken us months. More important, with VDI we didn’t have to interrupt classroom instruction to make the update.”
The new efficiency built into their system allows for one support technician to manage all of the district’s virtual desktops. “Before, we had a ratio of 1 technician to 2,400 desktop computers,” Akers says. “I’m hoping with VDI, we’ll achieve a ratio of 1-to-4000, even with our legacy hardware. If we were rolling out new thin clients, we could easily get to a 1-to-6000 ratio. Ultimately, when we’ve standardized on VDI, IT will spend more time on innovation and less time on keeping the lights on. I’m looking forward to being proactive rather than reactive.”
Currently, the district is considering a new project to enable Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) technology. “Our district can’t afford to buy a computer for every student,” Reyna says, “but students are already carrying mobile devices. VDI may enable us to give students mobile access to all the educational content we make available to them in classrooms and computer labs.”
Socorro ISD chose to deploy Citrix XenDesktop, ensuring smooth runtime and avoiding possible VDI issues. “We definitely recommend deploying the Dell Desktop Virtualization Solution stack, rather than trying to build a VDI platform yourself,” Dominguez says. The district engaged Logical Front and Dell Education Services to deliver onsite training for their 10 desktop support technicians. “I highly recommend onsite training for any organization that needs to bring several people up to speed on a Dell technology,” Dominguez adds.
In addition to the ongoing support from Logical Front, Socorro ISD contracted with Dell ProSupport Mission Critical for four-hour onsite response and with Dell Remote Advisory Services, delivering flexible, fast and cost-effective support for specialized applications from a certified expert. Dominguez says both services are well worth the investment.
“Our VDI platform experienced a failure on the first day of school,” Dominguez says. “It’s working great now, and it worked great during our tests over the summer, but as soon as all 3,600 virtual desktops started logging on, there was a compatibility issue between Citrix Provisioning Services and a third-party appliance we use for DHCP and DNS resolution. We were extremely happy with the efforts of Dell Support Services to resolve the issue. They were fantastic.”
Akers adds that the district’s Dell ProSupport Technical Account Manager (TAM) ensured that the issue was resolved fast. “Our TAM got all the right people involved. She got them on the phone within 5 or 10 minutes,” he says. “At one point, we thought it might be a switching issue, and she got Brocade, Force10 and PowerConnect support staff on the line at once, along with Dell’s Flex Computing group and Citrix.”
Today, students across Socorro ISD have access to new, high-end software in every lab and classroom. Legacy hardware has been given new life, smoothly running software that would have been impossible to run without VDI. As software and instructional applications perform well, students and teachers are excited to use them and frustrations are minimized. Teachers are now happy to take their classes down the hall to use computer labs with 10-year-old hardware.
“As students, teachers, and administrators get hands-on experience with VDI, we’re getting buy-in from a lot of people outside our department,” Reyna says. “The virtual desktops powered by Dell are enhancing the educational environment and improving student learning across our district.”