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Low-cost virtual desktop tech eases Windows XP upgrade

The Pana Schools Community District explored ways to migrate from Windows XP and settled on a virtualized environment because of cost.

School districts with little budget to upgrade PCs to Windows 7 or 8.1 must explore alternatives, and for one school district, desktop virtualization has passed with flying colors.

Pana Community School District 8 in Pana, Illinois, is migrating an estimated 400 Windows XP desktops in its computer labs to a virtualized Windows 7 environment. The school district, which began researching its options a few years ago, is expected to finish its migration shortly.

"We didn't have the resources for replacing the desktop computers we had," said Scott Savage, district technology coordinator. "I was looking at several hundred desktop computers and struggling to find a way to fit it in my budget."

Districts like Pana have suffered from decreased federal and state funding over the past decade. This has forced IT administrators to seek new ways to upgrade old technologies and incorporate new ones.

Savage investigated all the typical routes -- pricing out inexpensive desktop PCs, building his own desktops and deploying Wyse thin-client terminals. Licensing in addition to purchasing thin-client hardware was going to cost as much as a regular desktop. Savage called the thin-client route "dead on discussion."

The school district also researched a Citrix VDI deployment, but it would require new servers, licensing stacks and other technologies.

A cheaper alternative

With a tight budget constraining the Windows XP migration, the Pana Community School District investigated alternatives and found that other schools recommended and deployed NComputing's virtual desktop client devices.

Costs are dramatically lower using NComputing's L-300 unit, and the product was also in line with the school's technology requirements. The cost of the devices, keyboards, mice and relevant licensing came to no more than $250 per device. In comparison, a desktop PC would have cost Savage's school district $600 per unit.

Scott Savage's recommendations for IT pros migrating from Windows XP to a virtualized deployment

  • Plan the use case scenario thoroughly.
  • Work with the vendor's sales rep to get a thin-client device for free.
  • Fully test and vet the hardware and software in the planned environment.

To keep costs down, Pana needed to keep existing equipment such as the computer labs' monitors, which saved the district approximately $100 per display. Savage also reused his Windows licenses and purchased Remote Desktop Service Client Access Licenses as needed.

The school district also runs Windows Server 2012, Windows Server 2008 R2 and Hyper-V. The school district and the state of Illinois have a statewide contract with Microsoft, Savage said.

An extra Desktop Experience add-on feature for Windows Server 2008 R2 provides students with an environment that behaves like Windows 7 and is compatible with existing applications such as Microsoft Office and AutoCAD, Savage said. In addition, the L-300 allows students to run accelerated audio and video applications such as YouTube and other education-specific software packages.

For Savage, the challenge now is not so much the migration from Windows XP to a virtualized model but also to ensure there is enough bandwidth in the classroom.

The school district's elementary school will soon move from 2.5 Mbps copper wire to 100 Mbps over fiber. By the end of the summer, the junior high and high school will use 300 Mbps over fiber.

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Essential Guide

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