Archives For IT Infrastructure

Virtualization is one of the hottest technology topics these days. Most people have probably heard about it in the context of Apple’s switch to Intel processors and the release of Parallels Desktop for Mac. Parallels allows you to run Windows applications on an Intel Mac by starting up a full copy of Windows within a window. You can run Windows in full-screen mode and even put Windows and OS X on separate screens if you have two displays. I’ve been waiting patiently (OK, not that patiently) for the Core 2 Duo upgrade before ordering a new MacBook Pro for work, and since there are a couple Windows apps I need to run I’ll be ordering a copy of Windows XP and Parallels to go with that new laptop.

It’s called virtualization because software like Parallels creates a “virtual machine” (VM) on top of which runs a “guest” operating system. Any guest OS that runs on PC-compatible hardware (e.g., Intel, AMD) can run in a Parallels VM. So my MacBook Pro will probably ended up running OS X, Windows, and Ubuntu Linux—maybe even simultaneously. I won’t go into any technical details because that’s been done many times. [1] [2]

The king of virtualization in modern times is VMware. The VMware software was built originally for virtualization on the desktop, but the really interesting stuff has been happening on the server side. If you’ve installed any Windows server software lately you know that a lot of those programs don’t play nicely together. Many IT departments end up buying separate servers for each application, and the result is that those servers go underutilized from a processor and memory standpoint. That’s where virtualization comes in. The benefits are pretty clear when you look at a simple example:

Let’s say I’ve got four separate Windows application that would normally require separate servers. It’s hard to buy a “real” server these days for less than $5,000 so let’s use that as a baseline. By utilizing VMware I could buy a beefier server for $10,000 and install my Windows applications in separate VMs on that server. The newest, high-end version of VMware isn’t free, but even with a $2,000 VMware license I’m still way ahead.

(4 × $5,000) − ($10,000 + $2,000) = $8,000!

That’s way oversimplified (and probably overly optimistic), but it doesn’t take into account additional savings in rack space, cooling requirements, and electricity use.

That’s it for now. I’ll post soon about some free virtualization products.

References:

  1. Virtualization, Wikipedia.
  2. Virtual Machine History & Technology, Security Now podcast.

vmware, virtualization, parallels

Back to class

12 Sep 2006

Starting tomorrow morning I’ll be in three days of classes at the U. of MN working toward an ITIL foundation certificate. The foundation course will cover all the basics of ITIL, and I’m hoping it will help me as I continue to rethink how we deliver IT services in my school district. I discovered ITIL in December, 2005 and I’ve been looking forward to implementing some of the key processes ever since.

I’ll do my best to post some reflections and notes about the class here.

itil, itsm, tech support, umn

I’m at a meeting of local ed tech people today learning about VBrick. VBrick is a video distribution system that the Edina Public Schools purchased recently to replace their aging system of racks of VCRs. They passed a bond in their community that funded the system, including hundreds of LCD projectors in classrooms. They are in the process of converting their old analog video library now (at least the titles for which they could acquire the rights to do so) and only purchase titles that include video distribution rights now.

They bought Hitachi CP-X443 projectors that include four speakers instead of the standard one speaker. Apparently the sound from the projector is quite good and is loud enough to be heard throughout a classroom. If true, that’s a big improvement.

The VBrick management system is Web-based. Teachers visit a URL for the local VBrick server and can watch live TV or any video content that’s in the library. Media staff can schedule programs to be recorded which will then be available to all teachers. The sales guy says that they can integrate with other video streaming systems like United Streaming.

We continue to look at video streaming systems in my district, but we need to expand the availability of LCD projectors to make it work well. So far we’re buying projectors a few at a time which isn’t ideal, but it’s all we can do without a large source of funding to do a big project.

vbrick, videostreaming

For most of us who use Macs, OS X is the reason why. Sure, the hardware is beautiful to look at, but that’s just eye candy without having powerful applications available. So when Apple announced their transition to Intel chips last year and the buzz began about the possibility of running Microsoft Windows on Apple hardware, I was one of many people who were probably wondering why anyone would want to do that.

But as soon as the Intel-based Macs became available, the race was on. One contest sprang up and quickly established a $13,000 bounty for the first person to get XP running on a Mac. The prize was claimed pretty quickly and the process of getting Windows installed, though long and complicated, got easier as more and more drivers became available.

Everything changed today. Apple announced Boot Camp and things just got a lot more interesting. From the site: “Once you’ve completed Boot Camp, simply hold down the option key at startup to choose between Mac OS X and Windows. (That’s the “alt” key for you longtime Windows users.) After starting up, your Mac runs Windows completely natively. Simply restart to come back to Mac.”

So you’ve been wanting to try podcasting with GarageBand, but you’re “stuck” running Windows? You can now buy a Mac and dual-boot Windows and OS X. Pretty cool.

windows, macosx, apple

Paul Nelson is Technology Director at Riverdale High School in Portland, OR and co-creator of the K-12 Linux Terminal Server Project. K-12 LTSP is a really cool way to take older machines and breathe new life into them by connecting them to a powerful server that takes over the bulk of the computing tasks. For standard Web browsing and Office-like applications, schools can save a bunch of money using thin clients vs. full PCs.

Our podcast should be a pretty good introduction to Linux, open source, and thin client computing. We mention RedHat and Edubuntu, two Linux distributions of particular interest to schools, and the K-12 Linux in School Project which seeks to promote free and open source software in educational settings.

Download: STP-PaulNelson (16.9 MB, 36:35)

k12ltsp, thin clients, edubuntu

I was listening to an IT Conversations podcast of Michael Disabato’s talk from the Burton Group Catalyst Conference recently and discovered a fantastic resource. ITIL is the IT Infrastructural Library and the ITIL Website describes it as:

ITIL (the IT Infrastructure Library) is essentially a series of documents that are used to aid the implementation of a framework for IT Service Management. This customisable framework defines how Service Management is applied within an organisation.

It’s clear that schools don’t operate their IT systems like businesses, and I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Schools and businesses have different outcomes in mind. But at the same time I recognize that schools have a lot to learn from large enterprises who have learned an enormous amount about how to build and maintain complex technology systems. The ITIL Toolkit is a comprehensive set of planning guides that are intended to help enterprises establish best practices. The Toolkit costs $199 and can be purchased from the Web site. Given what I heard in the podcast and what I’ve seen of the Toolkit online, I think that would be $199 well spent to make some significant improvements in a school’s IT department.

I got an interesting letter from the Minnesota Department of Education last week. Here’s a snippet:

During the next legislative session, representatives from the Minnesota Department of Education will present a plan and cost estimates for improving the technology infrastructure in Minnesota schools. This plan will be based on the requirements for delivering all of Minnesota’s statewide assessments via computer, in an online environment. In order to help estimate the extent of the current hardware conditions, improvements and their potential costs, you are asked to participate in a survey of the computer hardware currently in use in your district.

The survey asks how many computers we’ve got (at or above a Pentium III 700 MHz or G3 333 MHz), how much it would cost for us to install 25-30 new computers, how many days it would take to administer a one-hour test to all students, how many days it would take to administer a two-hour test to all students, how many days for one-hour and two-hour tests for our ELL students, and finally, a number of questions about our network bandwidth.

My school district is relatively tech-rich compared to many other districts I’ve seen. Even so, it would take a pretty big chunk of time to get all of our students through the computer labs to complete the tests. This will be a significant burden for less well-equipped districts. I wonder whether students will be advantaged or disadvantaged in an online testing environment depending on their degree of experience with technology. The kids in our one-to-one computing project would probably love doing the tests on their laptops instead of bubbling in ovals by hand. A lack of keyboarding or mousing experience could be a serious disadvantage for students who attend poorly equipped, economically disadvantaged schools.

I saw literally hundreds of different products in the vendor hall at NECC. Way too many, in fact, to have much of a look at many of them. One that caught my eye was a new product SanDisk was promoting. Their Cruzer Freedom USB flash drive:

is a uniquely designed USB Flash Drive that lets your students safely carry personal digital files. Powered by FlashCP technology (formerly known as “BookLocker™”, this drive becomes a “digital backpack”. The digital backpack allows easy and safe downloads of copyrighted content including textbooks, novels, study aids, learning tools and much more.

I’ve read about a lot of schools that are starting to provide flash drives for their students as a cost-effective way to facilitate moving digital content back and forth between school and home. The price is certainly right. I was at Costco yesterday and saw a 512-MB Lexar flash drive for about $40.

The SanDisk product isn’t as cheap, however, since they’ve had to license some DRM technology to prevent anyone from redistributing copyrighted content. So I guess the question becomes whether or not it’s worth paying 2× as much for a flash drive in order to take advantage of a select set of publishers’ titles and the ability to search, highlight, and annotate the e-text. If I was going to buy hundreds of these things I think I’d save the money and buy a standard flash drive for now. I’m sure the catalog of available digital content will grow, and I might come to the opposite conclusion a year from now. But do we really want to get our students reading more textbooks when there’s so much content out there that isn’t encumbered by draconian copyright that requires DRM?

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