Back[end] to school


By GovTechReview Staff
Thursday, 04 August, 2011



West Australia's Department of Education has rebuilt its back-end infrastructure and is using its new equipment to fuel a new approach to technology in the classroom.


Glen Veen doesn’t want schools to have a lot of technology.

“If they have an Internet Protocol stack and a browser, they’re in,” he says.

“The aim of our ICT group is to reduce the technology in schools as much as possible.” That may sound odd coming from a Director of Infrastructure and Telecommunications, Information and Communication Technology in the Western Australian Department of Education, for that is Veen’s role.

But his desire for minimalism is well founded: Veen wants schools and students to access technology services as often as possible, in as many places as possible, and believes simplicity is the way to achieve that outcome.

The Department’s efforts to deliver simplicity started several years ago and away from schools, when reduced funding in the State budget saw Veen rethink some of the IT team’s practices.

“I met VMware and they told their story. We have to show return on investment in a year on projects because funds don’t automatically roll over, so I said to our outsourcing partner Kinetic IT let’s try this VMware stuff.” “We’d been told we could achieve an 8:1 server consolidation ratio. We got to 20:1. “This was a big win because the Department had more than 700 servers, and a culture in which different parts of the organisation saw the acquisition of new servers as a natural part of any new project. Virtualisation and server consolidation meant a smaller fleet, fewer purchases and also the chance to failover from one virtual machine to another, a level of redundancy the Department had not previously enjoyed.

“We’ve become very fond of blade servers,” Veen says. “We run ten blades and can run multiple services in that environment. The power savings aren’t always there – blades draw more power – but at the end of the day replacing servers is cheaper by the box. We can buy a chassis with two blades in it and adding another blade is cheaper than adding new conventional servers.” “If users want more capacity, often they walk in thinking they need to buy a server and they have budgeted for that. Now we say ‘Buy the blade’ or sometimes we have capacity to meet their needs.” “That was a big win and saved the government a bit of cash,”Veen says.

It also got Veen and his team thinking about other ways virtualisation could bring about similar outcomes, “so we also looked at storage virtualisation.” That “look” resulted in an upgrade to the Department’s fleet of EMC Clariion storage arrays, which provide a pool of virtualised storage used by the virtual servers and help with the operation of a number of bespoke and off-the-shelf business applications the Department uses for administrative tasks.

“Instead of using direct-attached disk on each server, we have virtualised storage on the storage area network (SAN). We boot from local disk, but the SAN is where all the content resides.” Simplifying schools The SANs have two other roles, one of which is storing a standard operating environment (SoE) used by students’ laptop computers. Students load up the SoE and can use wireless networks in schools.

Data created by students, and by schools, is stored on a server that now backs up over the Department’s network to a different type of storage array, EMC’s Avamar RAIN devices. Before data travels over the network it is subjected to a process called ‘data deduplication’ which compresses data (see box) so that fewer bytes are transmitted and less bandwidth is required.

Veen says this technique has made a big difference to the Department, as schools used to make their own backups onto tape but now servers send backups automatically overnight.

“It’s a sensational result because it takes the pressure off schools,” Veen says. “In the north west of the state tapes used to get dirty. Now they don’t have to worry about it.” Data from the schools is stored on the RAIN appliances and then, as it ages, older files are migrated to the other SANs.

Schools have also benefited from server virtualisation, as the Department has employed VMware to reduce server count from three to one at each campus.

“We were spending at least $4,000 per server and we would purchase three servers for each school every four years,” says Veen. “Now, we only need to purchase one server every three years for each school at a cost of $6,000.

“Virtualisation and backup to head office have been a way of delivering a lower-cost technology footprint to schools,” Veen says. “And we believe we can reduce it further. The Building the Education Revolution project will make sure each school gets a decent fibre backbone.” Veen feels the extra bandwidth that will bring could mean servers become less necessary at schools, so more data can be stored centrally where economies of scale will mean it is more secure and storage systems offer more reliability.

“Rather than having data in a school, we would prefer to hold it centrally,” he says.

“It’s about standardising and reducing things. And the less technology we have at schools, the better the environmental outcome.” If schools must host technology, Veen hopes compact devices can do the job.

“Future versions of the SoE will look at devices that are like a blade server with a built-in switch. We want one device.” Veen also hopes online services can change the role of schools and the way children learn.

“We want to give students ways to work outside the building. If they are home sick for a day they can still do their work. The school is not just a LAN: the school is now in the home as well. We are not too far from this.” These efforts, Veen feels, aren’t only significant because of the outcomes they offer to his Department.

Indeed, he feels that the systems he’s building, and the impact they are having on schools, heralds a sea change.

“For years, technology has focused on business,” he says. The Department’s experiences applying business technology to its problems, the sheer size of the education community worldwide and the penetration of technology into that community mean he feels a new tide is surging. “Technology is now focusing more on schools. We are happy to help drive that agenda.”

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