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Get schooled on how to deploy VDI technology like a pro

Thought your high school days were over? Not so fast -- there's a lot the enterprise can learn from a virtual high school about how to deploy VDI technology.

VDI has the potential to completely redefine how you think about conducting business, but how you deploy the technology matters.

Unfortunately, many VDI deployments are attempts to mirror the physical computing world. Deployments that push the boundaries and bring new value to an organization can be hard to find, but the VDI implementation at The Village Green Virtual Public Charter School (VGCS) in Providence, R.I., does just that. And the route that VGCS took to virtualization success isn't just a valuable template for schools; you can apply it to your business, too.

The school began with a simple vision: The founders wanted students to be stewards of their own education. They felt that students should be self-directed and able to learn at their own pace. They also wanted to provide students with doctorate-level instruction in every class, and elevate public school standards through technology.

Virtualization and education

To deliver on this vision, VGCS turned to a blended learning model that includes classroom teachers as well as a virtual curriculum delivery system. Students log into a software platform that delivers video-based classroom instruction from doctorate-level instructors, and the classroom teacher steps in when necessary. The software is interactive, tracks and reports progress, and flags struggling students so they can receive in-class reinforcement. Coupled with group sessions that emphasize group learning skills, the feeling was that this model would create a learning environment superior to that of traditional public schools.

One challenge was that students needed high-level technology at their desks to access their curriculum. Anyone who has worked in education knows that giving student high-end technology can create a support nightmare: Broken operating systems, viruses and hardware failure could have stopped the Village Green project before it even began.

For this use case, VDI was an ideal option. VDI abstracts the operating system from the user population, and VGCS implemented a destroy on logoff (DoL) model to ensure that students begin every day with a fresh OS. This limits the issues that cumulative student use can produce in Windows, such as slowness, freezing, crashes and more.

Initial testing in a lab-based VMware Horizon VDI environment suggested that the deployment would work, but that choosing the right endpoint was critical. Accessing the VDI session from a conventional computer produced a mediocre experience, so VGCS settled on a Teradici-based zero client. In addition to having no operating system to maintain, the embedded Teradici chipset accelerates the performance of the PCoIP protocol, which in turn results in a better user experience for students.

The school was set to take on approximately 160 students in the first 24 months of operation, with room to scale. VGCS opted for a blade architecture backed by 10 Gigabit Ethernet network switching. Targeting a consolidation ratio of 60:1, the VDI environment requires only four blades to maintain N+1 redundancy. In addition, there are three blades for the server side of the environment. With only seven blade slots consumed at the deployment's outset, the chassis was only 50% populated, which means the school will have plenty of room to grow.

Delivering flawless video to 160+ students simultaneously through a VDI image is a heavy lift, however, so the school also needed high-performing storage and protocol offload. VGCS decided to use a product that would allow it to deploy virtual machine (VM) operating systems directly into volatile memory (RAM), meaning the school could use a less expensive commodity storage array for user data. The only hang-up was that profiling had to be carefully configured to ensure no student would lose his or her data in the DoL process, or in the event of a power failure.

To reduce the CPU hit associated with encoding and decoding the PCoIP protocol via the software agent in the VM, Village Green decided to deploy APEX offload cards. Coupled with the Teradici-based zero clients, hardware offload handles all the PCoIP communication between the endpoints and the servers, which gives students excellent performance, even under full load.

Bringing it to the enterprise

The technical details of this project are interesting to anyone looking to deploy VDI in a school or in the enterprise. The path that VGCS took can help in any VDI setting. In the first place, it's a great example of planning and knowing what your users need, two of the most important facets of any VDI deployment. Additionally, the technology and hardware that the school chose to implement give students a user experience that some corporate employees would envy.

One of the most impressive outcomes of the Village Green VDI deployment is that in the 2013-2014 school year, not a single hour of teachable time was lost because of weather or a student's inability to travel to the school; the VDI environment provided seamless access all year. That same year, the school operated without a single IT person on staff. One of the results of the design was that maintenance was so low the school could outsource it completely.

Most importantly, the students at VGCS are thriving; some are even on track to graduate early. In some cases, these are students who were struggling in conventional schools but are now near the top of their class. In 2014, Richard Culatta, director of the Office for Educational Technology for the U.S. Department of Education, visited VGCS.

"One of the key pieces is how empowered the students are. Used correctly, technology can amplify a student's ability to control his or her educational environment," said Culatta after reviewing the deployment. "It's clear that at VGCS, technology is an enabler. This is how education should be delivered."

The bottom line is that the project at Village Green was a huge success. It's not just a great case study, it's a model for any school or organization looking to deploy VDI.

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