Cloud Watching # 5 – From Virtualization to Private Cloud

This article is written as an introduction to Virtualization and to help you understand how it can be used in your schooling system, and to help explain how Virtualization leads to Cloud Computing. The first part of this article – an explanation of Virtualization – is based on the excellent work on this area by David Chappell

Virtualization currently a hot topic for three main reasons –

  1. It saves cost
  2. It allows the easier management of systems
  3. It’s a key component in Private Cloud Computing

To understand Virtualization, lets first look at a familiar computing scenario – running an application on top of an operating system, which in turn sits on some physical hardware. The application’s user interface is presented via a display that’s directly attached to a physical machine.

Whilst this scenario is extremely common, it’s not the only choice for how to deliver IT services – nor is it necessarily the best choice. Virtualization enables us to “uncouple” these elements, to deliver more manageable and cost effective computing services.

There are 3 principle Virtualization methods:

  • Hardware Virtualization – where the Operating System is uncoupled  from the Physical Machine that it runs on.
  • Application Virtualization – where the Application is uncoupled from the Operating System.
  • Presentation Virtualization – where the Application user interface is uncoupled from the Physical Machine that the application runs on.

These methods make the links between components easier to change and manage.

Let’s now look at each of these in turn.

Hardware Virtualization

With Hardware Virtualization, Virtual Machines (VMs) that emulate a physical computer are created on either a server or a client (e.g., laptop or desktop) computer. This approach allows several Operating Systems, with Applications, to run simultaneously on a single Physical Machine.

Desktop Virtualization can be used to run more than one operating system on a single computer to deal with application incompatibility. For example, an old application may not run with the latest version of Windows, so a VM can be set up to run an older version of Windows, enabling the older application to run.

Server Virtualization can bring significant economic benefits by enabling the consolidation of workloads onto a smaller number of physical (server) machines. In a Data Center it’s common to find many under-utilized servers machines, each dedicated to a specific workload. Server Virtualization allows consolidating those workloads onto a smaller number of more optimally used machines. The economic benefits are less electricity consumed, less physical hardware to purchase, house and maintain.

A school network will usually have one server for each major IT service function, such as the Management Information System (MIS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), accounts, printing, and library systems etc. When a system is virtualized, these physical servers are replaced with VMs that are housed in clusters on a smaller number of physical servers. This has significant benefits in terms of savings, efficiency and reliability.

West Hatch, a Secondary School in England, shrank the number of physical servers needed to effectively run their system from 24 to 9.Virtualization increased efficiency of their network whilst saving $18,000 a year in hardware, maintenance and electricity. A detailed case study is available here – West Hatch_Virtualization_Case_Study.

Virtualization provides the system with the ability to deal seamlessly with the failure of a server by automatically moving all its services to another – the system users wouldn’t even know it’s happened. VMs are stored as files, and so restoring a failed service can be as simple as copying the VM file onto a new machine. Since VMs can have different hardware configurations from the physical machine on which they’re running, this approach also allows restoring a failed service onto any available machine. There’s no requirement to use a physically identical system.

So what has this got to do with the Cloud? Virtualisation enables a key feature of Cloud services – elasticity. For example, a service that only happens once every academic term (e.g., processing large volumes of academic data), only needs to be hosted on a server for the amount of time it’s required for. The rest of the time, it can be stored away, thereby reducing service costs.

At West Hatch, the key technology used for Hardware Virtualization is Microsoft Hyper-V Server run from within Windows Server 2008.

Application Virtualization

Every application depends on its Operating System for a range of services, including memory allocation, device drivers, and much more. Applications commonly share various things with other applications on their system, and this can be problematic. For example, one application might require a specific version of a dynamic link library (DLL) to function, while another application on that system might require a different version of the same DLL. To avoid this, organizations often have to perform extensive testing before installing a new application – a time-consuming and expensive activity.

Application Virtualization solves this problem by creating application-specific copies of all shared resources. The objects that an application might share with other applications on its system — registry entries, specific DLLs, and more — are packaged with it in a Virtual Application (VA). When a VA is deployed, it uses its own copy of these shared resources.

Application Virtualization makes deployment significantly easier since applications no longer competes for shared resources, eliminating the need to test new applications for conflicts with existing applications before they’re rolled out. These virtual applications can run alongside ordinary applications.

Microsoft Application Virtualization, called App-V for short, is Microsoft’s technology for this area. An App-V administrator can create virtual applications, and then deploy those applications as needed.West Hatch also virtualized applications and for a detailed description from Alan Richards, ICT Technical Lead at West Hatch, on how they did this using Microsoft App-V click here.

Presentation Virtualization

Common applications, such as Microsoft Office, both run and present its user interface on the same machine. Sometimes, it makes sense, however, to de-couple the running and presentation of an application – presentation virtualization. This is about letting an application execute on a remote server, and displaying its user interface on another computer.

Presentation Virtualization allows applications to run in Virtual Sessions, each projecting their user interfaces to a remote client computer. Each session can run single or multiple applications.

Presentation Virtualization offers several benefits – for example, data isn’t spread across many different systems, instead it’s stored safely on a central server rather than on multiple desktop machines. Instead of updating each application on eachindividual desktop, only a single shared copy on the server needs to bechanged. This also allows using simpler desktop operating system images, “Thin Client” technology – both of which can lower management costs.

It’s sometimes easier to run an application on a central server, and then use presentation virtualization to make the application accessible to clients running any operating system. This can eliminate incompatibilities between an application and a desktop operating system.  Presentation virtualization can improve performance. If a client/server application consumes large amounts of data from a central database down to the client and the network link between the client and the server is slow, this application will also be slow. One way to improve performance is to run the entire application—both client and server—on a machine with a high-bandwidth connection to the database, then use presentation virtualization to make the pplication available to its users. This way, only screen refreshes, mouse clicks and keyboard strokes are being sent over the connection.

Many schools use Thin Client computing, but it’s not without its limitations – e.g., the requirement for high bandwidth connection between the terminal and the server especially if users will require multimedia.

Presentation Virtualization technology is included in Remote Desktop Services – a standard part of Windows Server 2008 R2 with SP1.

Private Cloud

Private Cloud exploits virtualization but takes it further. A Private Cloud shares many of the characteristics of Public Cloud computing including resource pooling, self-service, elasticity and pay-by-use delivered in a standardized manner with the additional control and customization available from dedicated resources.

While virtualization is an important technological component of private cloud, the key differentiator is the continued abstraction of computing resources from infrastructure and the machines (virtual or otherwise) used to deliver those resources.

Other key components of Private Cloud are:

  • Packaging and Managing Services
  • Cross Platform Capabilities
  • Cross Environment Capabilities

Packaging and Managing Services

A key differentiator between an ordinary Data Center and a Private Cloud solution is how services are packaged and managed.

Let’s start with a look at Services Management. As organizations begin to move from virtualized infrastructure to private cloud implementations, their focus begins to shift from virtual machines to applications and services.

One approach is to this it to think of a service as a logical representation of an application. For example, consider a line of business application composed of a web tier, business logic tier, and database tier. You then define a “service template” which captures the blueprint of this application service – this service template would include hardware profiles, operating system profiles , application profiles, health/performance thresholds, update policies, scale out rules etc. This is how your application service can then be enabled with the Cloud attributes described above for each service tier.

Designing and operationalizing such a set of services could potentially be complex, but System Center 2012 enables a simplified and visual approach:

The health and performance of all aspects of IT infrastructure, including the physical layer, the virtualization layer, the operating system and the applications need to be managed too, something that can be accomplished with System Center Operations Manager.

Cross-Platform Capabilities

Services are rarely built from the ground up, so it’s critical to make sure that there is good interoperability between different system components, which can be layered in this way:

  • Application frameworks – .e.g.: Net; Java; php; Ruby
  • Management – System Center; HP; CA; BMC; EMC
  • Operating Systems – Windows Server; redhat; Suse; CentOS
  • Virtualisation (multiple hypervisor mangagement) – Hyper-V; Citrix; VMWare
  • Hardware – HP; Dell; Fujitsu; IBM; NEC; Hitachi; Cisco

Cross Environment Capabilities

As mentioned in previous “Cloud Watching” articles, it’s unlikely that any education organisation is going to want to migrate everything to a Public Cloud immediately. Rather, organisations are much more likely to spread workloads across on-premises, Virtualised Data Centers, Private and Public Clouds.

Therefore, a key Private Cloud capability is to have a “single pane of glass” view to manage and run applications across private and public cloud environments. System Center App Controller 2012 offers full visibility and control to deploy, manage, and consume applications across each service scenarios.

In conclusion, virtualisation is a good starting place for developing Cloud capabilities within a single school environment. At municipality level and above we can start thinking about using virtualisation more extensively in Data Canters and start turning Data Centres into Private Clouds by packaging and managing services, and developing cross platform and environment capabilities.

Further information: http://www.microsoft.com/investor/downloads/events/Microsoft_Private_Cloud_Whitepaper.pdf

Putting the “i” into Singapore Schooling

With top rankings in PISA and TIMMS, Singapore is the envy of many schooling systems around the world. Whilst ICT is just one of a range of factors that affect learning outcomes, it is a key tool for meeting at least two of the four key desired outcomes of the Singapore schooling system – for all students to become self-directed and collaborative learners.

Singapore was one of the first countries in the world to have a national strategy for ICT in Schools. A succession of well-planned, funded and executed programmes focussing initially on infrastructure and training, and more recently focussing on self-directed learning – has driven effective use of ICT. For details of Singapore’s main ICT projects, see http://wp.me/P16Iyp-46

A great showcase for the effectiveness of this investment is Crescent Girls’ School, a member of the “Future School” programme, and recently awarded the status of Mentor School by Microsoft. Crescent also hosted the CRADLE conference on 1st – 3rd August.

On the surface, Crescent could be any other Secondary School, but a quick glance at the trophy cabinet next to the reception makes it clear that this school is totally committed to high performance. Crescent’s aim is to be at the forefront of harnessing technology to enhance learning outcomes. ICT is used extensively in both delivery and assessment and the school’s 1300 students each have their own Tablet PC. The goal of using ICT is to give students a degree of choice over what they learn and how they learn.

The students engage in a wide range of activities including 2D, 3D animation and robotics; multimedia production; photo-shooting and editing; and development and use of e-books. Particularly impressive is the use of Tablet PCs’ “inking” features for a range of activities including highly impressive manga artwork.

Crescent is moving towards project based learning with a series of “Integrated Secondary Curricula” programmes.

Virtual Reality is used at the school too. For example, in Geography, students experience immersive content showing erosion in a river – a concept that is much easier to grasp when viewing 3d animated rocks being swept along by the current from the perspective of the river bed.

Particularly impressive at Crescent is the way that teachers engage in the content creation process. For example, a complete suite of applications and content have been developed for the Tablet PC that not only exploits the pen and inking technologies but also address a range of different learning styles.

Taking this process further, teachers specified collaborative games to take advantage of the MultiTouch features in Windows 7 and HueLabs’ “Heumi” multitouch (Surface) devices. This means that students can now engage in a wide range of collaborative learning experiences, such as learning to write Chinese. As impressive as the technology itself is the way in which the room in which the Heumi devices are deployed. Here, in the “iCove”, strong colour coding of the devices and the seating, enable teachers to group learners according to their learning objectives.

More recently the school has introduced a biometric system that not only automatically records the students as present but takes their temperatures as they come into the school in the morning, enabling their health to be monitored.

The infrastructure that sits behind Crescent’s ICT provision is highly impressive. The infrastructure foundation is a Campus-wide wireless network with 100 Mbps Broadband. Tablet PCs are stored in steel lockers, and batteries are charged at charging stations.

Approximately 30 on-premises servers perform a range of essential back-end functions from authentication to content management. The Server infrastructure – based on a Microsoft platform – supports a rich tapestry of capabilities including:

  • i-Connect Learning Space – a role based portal for organising student’s learning and activities
  • Pearson’s Write to Learn – a system that helps “automate” the marking of essays
  • HeuX – Huelabs Classroom Management System – with lesson management, digital book library, real-time Communication and Collaboration include notes-sharing and social media; screen monitoring and broadcasting; Presence awareness; attendance; Video Conferencing
  • i-Media – content management system.
  • Interactive books

These solutions are supported by Windows Server; SQL Server; Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server; System Center; Live Communications Manager; Hyper-V and Live@Edu. Much of the learning that takes place at Crescent happens after school hours, and the Virtual Private Network enables students to have 24×7 access. It’s not uncommon to see the portal being used by students at home at 2.00AM.

Singapore schools benefit from very high quality teachers (only 10% of applicants get admitted into teacher training). This is reflected in the staff at Crescent. Principal, Mrs Eugenia Lim, supported by Chief Technology Architect for Learning, Mr Lee Boon Keng, have a highly structured and team orientated approach, underpinned by a strong focus on continuous professional development.

Every hour, the chimes of Big Ben ring across the school signifying a change of lesson. As with Cornwallis School in Kent in the UK, I was totally inspired by what I saw at Crescent but couldn’t help wondering whether a shift from time-based to a performance-based model would better fit such a technology rich approach to learning. Nonetheless, Crescent’s use of ICT is without doubt world leading.

Whilst Crescent Girls’ School is clearly a leader amongst leaders, it’s far from unique in Singapore in the way in which it innovates with technology. Singapore schools benefit from long term, consistent policy and investment in ICT in schooling. With their structured approaches, strong management and deep understanding of how ICT can make learning more effective, Singapore schools look set to continue to show the world how it’s done.

Fortunately for us all, Crescent Girls’ School are “giving back” by encouraging people to visit the school – both physically and virtually.

Thanks to Eugenia Lim, Lee Boon Keng and all the staff and students at Crescent Girl’s School.

Saving Money Whilst Raising Standards – West Hatch Show You How

How lucky am I to be able to send my children to an excellent state school on the outskirts of London? Apart from having an Olympic Gold medalist, a Turner Prize winning artist, and a BBC newsreader amongst its alumni, West Hatch High School has now acquired an international reputation for its work in ICT. The school has just become a “Microsoft Innovative School” – partly due to the technical excellence of IT Manager, Alan Richards, and the smart investments in ICT made by Headteacher Frances Howarth and the Board of Governors.

Despite being able to offer IT Academy courses to the community for many years, it wasn’t until 2008 and with the arrival of Alan, that West Hatch started to optimise its infrastructure. Until then West Hatch’s 1300 students and staff had no guarantee of their network’s reliability, which meant it was underused. As Alan says: “Teachers will try things two or three times, but after that, if a lesson’s wrecked, they won’t risk it again.”

Alan joined the school with a track record of moving schools from failing ICT systems to state of the art facilities. His starting point was to rebuild the whole school network with new fibre-optic and network cabling and a managed wireless solution. The next step was to replace 24 servers of varying ages, and it was at this point that the decision to virtualise was made.

What is Virtualisation?

A school network will usually have one server for each major IT service function, such as the Management Information System (MIS), Learning Management Systems (LMS), accounts, printing, and library systems etc. When a system is virtualised, these physical servers are replaced with virtual servers that are housed in clusters on a smaller number of physical servers. This has significant benefits in terms of savings, efficiency and reliability. The number of physical servers needed to effectively run the West Hatch’s network shrank from 24 to 9, and virtualisation increased efficiency of the network whilst saving $18,000 a year in hardware, maintenance and electricity.

Virtualisation provides the system with the ability to deal seamlessly with the failure of a server by automatically moving all its services to another – the rest of the school wouldn’t even know it’s happened. “Our staff have confidence in the use of ICT now. They know they can go into a classroom, turn on the computer, and have the applications they need for their lesson up and running in seconds,”

The key technology that enabled this to happen is Microsoft Hyper-V Server, and Alan and the team also used Microsoft Network Monitor in and beyond the pilot phase to ensure effective resource planning. Server technology is predominantly Windows Server 2008. A detailed case study is available here – West Hatch_Virtualisation_Case_Study. West Hatch uses Application Virtualisation, as well as Hardware (or physical) Virtualisation described above. For a detailed description from Alan on how he virtualised applications using Microsoft App-V click here.

Towards the Paperless School

With a solid network foundation in place, the next challenge for Alan was to build a portal. Having been the first school in Europe to deploy Windows 7 across its network, West Hatch was also the first school in the UK to build a portal on SharePoint 2010. This has enabled students, staff, parents and the wider community to benefit from a wealth of information and learning resources.

But the SharePoint 2010 sites goes way beyond just providing information. It is now being used to reduce printing and postage costs. It is estimated that 1.5 million sheets of paper are used per year at West Hatch – the paper, toner, photocopier rental and staffing costs associated with this paper “blizzard” are phenomenal.

A major step forward for Alan was converting Academic Review day from a paper-intensive activity to a paper-less activity. Academic review is when all students and parents attended interviews with teacher. Prior to the use of SharePoint, this process involved completion of paper forms. Now forms are managed electronically and copies of agreed academic targets are emailed to the students and parents. 

Alan has a passion for providing every student with the facilities they need to achieve the best they can. Best of all, Alan openly shares his knowledge in his wonderful blog – Education Technology Now. Needless to say, Alan’s presentation this year at BETT on using ICT to save money whilst raising standards was a big hit!

An Innovative School

In February 2011, West Hatch announced that they had been accepted into the Microsoft Innovative School network. Benefitting from:

  • Access to virtual and in-person training from Microsoft and renowned education experts from around the world
  • Support for professional development
  • Access to the global Innovative Schools community 

And finally, I can’t resist it – here’s a picture from my daughter – a Yr 10 student in West Hatch. Produced on OneNote on a Tablet PC, this was synchronised between my computer and her computer using the automatic synchronisation between OneNote and SkyDrive.