Thursday, March 22, 2007

Terminal Services: The good, the bad and the ugly

I am hearing a lot about terminal services lately. I am also seeing a lot of excitement about it. About two years ago, I was also really excited about it but time, experience and experimentation has cooled my excitement. Terminal Services offers a great deal of additional access at a much lower cost but ultimately alienates today's youth who have become accustomed to personalized technology.

First, let me offer a brief definition. Terminal Services is effectively offering multiple users access to a single computer from multiple locations simultaneously. Microsoft offers terminal services and various products offer add-on functionality, such as Citrix. At Whitfield, we use Citrix. We have four servers which have up to about 75 users a piece running either a full desktop environment or specific applications. Thus, 75 people are using the same computer at the same time. Now, this is a pretty strong server but that's still pretty efficient. Terminal services have also gotten a lot of attention through the K-12 Linux Terminal Service Project and Linux Terminal Services through Novell's Suse Linux.

The Good
The good side of terminal services is that it can drastically cut costs. Instead of buying beefy desktops who's CPU remains idle most of the day, you can place low cost desktops or thin terminal devices (or hold onto really old, crappy computers) and run state of the art software on the relatively few beefy terminal servers. Because you can hold onto (or resurrect) old computers, it is very possible to improve your student to computer ratio. Lower costs and more access is a good thing!

The Bad
Whenever you have multiple users simultaneously using the same computer, you need to be careful about one user destroying the experience of all the others. In a desktop environment, if one kids messes things up, he or she will usually walk away and find another computer. Though that one computer is down, everyone else remains largely unaffected. The necessary result of this is that you have to lock down your terminal servers pretty tightly. You also need to watch them pretty closely, though, when things are not right, you will hear about it as it affects so many people! Also, one of the greatest limitations of terminal services is that resources are only available when people are connected to the network. Though many terminal services can be made available through the Internet, you still have to be connected. How lost did you feel the last time you forgot your cell phone? Magnify that times ten for today's digital kids.

The Ugly
Because the computing environment has to be locked down so tightly, terminal services turn technology into a pure utility. Now, some companies are very excited about this. They don't want people doing anything on computers other than that which they explicitly allow. Shamefully, some schools are that way. At best, this limits innovation and at worst, kills a spirit of exploration, which is absolutely counter-intuitive to education. What happens is that student use of technology is limited to the creativity of the IT staff and administration (most all of whom are NOT digital natives, unlike our students). Our students have become accustomed to slapping different colors on their iPod, changing desktop backgrounds daily, setting up digital environments which allow for the intersection of their work, personal lives, and interests. Kids will meet their needs someway and it simply can not be met through terminal services.

Our Experience
At Whitfield, we worked extremely hard to create a robust, fast and slick terminal services environment. We redirected many of the personal settings to other servers so students could have as much control as possible. They obviously could not install software or change any of the configurations of the terminal servers themselves.

We were also aware that the major limitation of terminal services is that the resources are unavailable if not connected to the Internet. Thus, we provided them access to Novell Linux Desktop 9 (the vastly inferior predecessor to SUSE Linux Desktop 10). Our Citrix environment offered most of the best Microsoft had to offer. Our Linux laptop offered most of the standard set of tools available on Linux. The only major modification we made was to give normal users a lot of rights over the Linux laptop.

Even though SUSE 9 was pretty inferior compared to Windows 2003, students reported spending half of their connected time in Linux. With SLED10, students now report spending 80-90 percent of their time in Linux. Though some of that relates to the new features of SLED10, people are reporting that the real reason they spend time in Linux versus Citrix is because they can "make it look the way they want to." Personalization is the key and terminal services can't offer that.

Terminal services still has a place in our environment. Teacher's frequently use Citrix for a Windows desktop environment and we also have some applications that simply can not be run from a Linux workstation. However, our mission calls for us to be a student centered environment. I can't honestly claim to be supporting the mission of my school and limit the needs of my students.

A Compromise
One of the latest innovations that seems to offer the savings of terminal services and the personalization of personal desktops is the virtual desktop initiative (Please see my post on virtualization). This allows people to use a low cost device (or actually any device able to connect to the Internet) to access a remote session to a virtual desktop. That desktop is, functionally, a complete and personal machine. However, that machine is virtual and actually exists on disk. That machine is made available through a virtual machine server, like VMWare or Xen.

In this scenario, users can personalize a machine to their liking without really affecting other users. Also, because these systems or easy to restore from frequent "snapshots," you can give users a little more freedoms on the box, encouraging innovation and technical literacy.

Now, this environment requires a lot more disk space than terminal services and still REQUIRES Internet connection, which is still a MAJOR limitation in most towns (NOTE: I would argue that kids need access beyond home and school in order to gain full fluency but equity issues also would require home connection for all users). Those limitations keep this from being a viable option in the St. Louis area today. However, if I were the CIO of Philadelphia Public Schools or Milwaukee Public Schools (where I actually started my teaching career) I would be ALL OVER this solution.

Monday, March 19, 2007

Integrating Citrix Applications into Linux Desktop (SLED10)

One of my colleagues pokes fun at me because I prefer to use Linux through the graphical interface and seek to avoid the command line when possible. I prefer this because I have high demands of Linux as a user friendly tool and it usually meets my expectations. That being said, the command line and Linux's ease of access to configuration files call you to leave the graphical world once in a while to make some very powerful changes that make the graphical world much better.

One such example are the steps to modify the configuration of the Gnome-Main-Menu (better known as the "Computer" button) to include Citrix applications so users can simply click an icon to launch remote applications hosted on Citrix Servers.

The following describes changes we made to include Citrix Applications into the Gnome Main Menu and how we did them.

Open /etc/xdg/menus/ in gedit.


...below the Categories section of the file (REMOVE the *!!! They are added to preserve the braket syntax in this post) and save the file.

Then open /usr/share/applications/wfcmgr.desktop with gedit and add "Citrix" to the catagories. Save and close the file.

Open /usr/lib/ICAClient/ with gedit and modify it to include subfolders for each of the subdirectories you have created in Citrix.

For example, ours reads:

export LANG="en"
/usr/lib/ICAClient/wfcmgr -icaroot /usr/lib/ICAClient &
while ! [-d $HOME/.ICAClient/cache/Programs]
sleep 1
# shortuser=$(echo $USER | sed 's/WHITFIELDSCHOOL\\//')
sudo ln -s -f $HOME/.ICAClient/cache/Programs/Citrix/Faculty\ \&\ Staff\ Apps/ /usr/share/applications/
sudo ln -s -f $HOME/.ICAClient/cache/Programs/Citrix/Gen\ Whitfield\ Apps/ /usr/share/applications/
sudo ln -s -f $HOME/.ICAClient/cache/Programs/Citrix/Graphics\ Apps/ /usr/share/applications/
sudo ln -s -f $HOME/.ICAClient/cache/Programs/Citrix/IT\ Mgmt\ Apps/ /usr/share/applications/
sudo ln -s -f $HOME/.ICAClient/cache/Programs/Citrix/MS\ Office\ 2003/ /usr/share/applications/

That should do it!

Now, we post this to share the information. This is obviously not the mose detailed technical document but it should get you started. This is not a supported solution by Citrix nor Novell. It has worked well for us and we wish you the best of luck in your organization!

Another 1:1 Linux Laptop School District

I had heard it through the grapevine but actually had a chance to hear it from the horse's mouth. San Diego Unified School District is doing a 1:1 laptop program with Linux. It is only in pilot form now but I had the opportunity to meet Jordan Zebor, a Distance Learning and Digital Media Specialist here at Brainshare. Though they don't have a posting on it yet, you can learn about all sorts of exciting 21st Century learning projects they are doing at Congratulations on your Linux Laptop project!

Brainshare '07: SLED in a 1:1 Education Environment

I am currently at Brainshare, Novell's annual conference to celebrate and learn about Novell Technologies. We are heavy user's of Novell's products, primarily SUSE Linux Enterprise Desktop 10 (SLED 10) and Zenworks. I am giving two presentations at the conference.

The first is Using SLED10 in a Mobile 1:1 Education Environment. The presentation was created with OpenOffice but is distributed here as a PowerPoint file for those users who don't have OpenOffice. Obviously, if you have OpenOffice, you know you can open PowerPoint files.

I am learning a great deal at Brainshare and hope to find the time to share some of my discoveries.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Virtualization in Education

I've had the opportunity to talk about virtualization in a few different contexts lately and so I thought I'd put together a post on it.

What is Virtualization?
Well, that depends a little on who you are talking to. The most popular notion of virtualization is virtual machines. This means running another computer as a software instance on top of another operating system. An example would be VMWare Workstation. In this instance you may have a Windows XP computer running a "virtualized SLED 10" system. Thus, you could be running programs for both operating systems at the same time on the same hardware.

Taking that to another level, many people (such as Whitfield) use virtualization for server consolidation. We had about 8 servers coming to the end of their lease life. Thus, rather than replace them with 8 new pieces of server hardware, we bought two beefy blade servers for our IBM BladeCenter and bought VMWare ESX virtual server software. We then used a utility to automatically migrate our physical servers to virtual servers. Now, we have two pretty beefy physical servers which are running about 16 different virtual servers. Each of these servers is configured pretty much as they were before. We use Remote Desktop to access and control the servers and they function just as they would if they were on physical pieces of server hardware. However, in addition to all of the tools offered by the server operating systems themselves, VMWare offers additional tools to diagnose and control the system resources being used by these servers, helping us to tune them to a higher degree.

Another form of virtualization is application virtualization. This allows you to run applications on a system as though they are on another system. Mac does this with OS9 application being run on OSX systems. Linux does this when running Windows programs with WINE. Also, some people refer to hosted applications, such as Citrix as virtualized applications. In this case, programs such as Microsoft Word, actually run on a Windows server but appear to the user as though they are running on his or her Linux laptop. This is how we run Windows programs in our Linux Laptop Program.

What's the hullabaloo about Virtualization?
(Thank goodness blogs don't have editors that make me cut out words like hullabaloo)
People are excited about virtualization and there are reasons for this. Virtualization can save a lot of money. Effectively, you only need disk, rather than hardware, to run applications and operating systems. Disk space costs a lot less and you probably already have disk space you're not using! Another reason people are happy about virtualization is that it removes many of the traditional obstacles of IT. Now you can run Windows on Mac hardware, without buying and carrying two computers. You can run Windows applications from a Mac or Windows machine. You can also manage virtual systems quite easily with management tools. Many of these management tools give you low or no cost management of systems that would be unavailable or cost prohibitive on physical machines.

Virtual Desktop Initiative
This is perhaps the coolest combination of virtualization technologies. Though I have seen a few different applications of virtual desktop initiatives, I will describe one I've seen being done by a major financial services company.

When a new employee joins the company, they go to the "request a workstation" web page from the low cost thin terminal sitting at their desk. They are prompted to answer a series of questions through a webified wizard. It asks questions such as what operating system do you want, what department are you in, etc. Then, based off the user's department and request, the user is provisioned a virtual desktop that appears on their screen as though it is installed locally. This system is created in about 5 minutes from templates that already exist. They also are provisioned all of their applications via Citrix right on the machine.

Users have lots of control over these machines, depending on their role in the organization. Many are allowed to install software, change desktop settings, etc. The reason this organization offers these increased powers is because they can easily restore the computers back the a previous snapshot which is grabbed by default. What's more is that users can go home and use a web browser on their personal home computer to access the entire virtual computer and work just as though they were sitting at their desk.

OK. This post is getting long so I will stop here. I will post again soon on the up-sides and downsides of virtual desktops in education, particularly when compared to terminal services.

Friday, March 02, 2007

Teacher Professional Development

I haven't felt the need to write a post on professional development because it really falls outside the core purpose of this blog site. However, many people have asked me how you deal with professional development and teacher training when shifting to open source and Linux. Well, the answer is, the same way you deal with any other change in your organization. Though the transition to Linux and 1:1 computing was a major topic of professional development, the model we used was relatively unchanged. Thus, I will share with you what we did.

Create the Schema
It is important that people have some understanding of the change before they can personally assess what their concerns and needs are. I don't do a lot of "stand-up speeches" to faculty (though I used to and decided that was a bad way to train). However, to give them necessary exposure, I gave a small presentation on what Linux was and why we were trying it for the pilot. That took about 30 minutes.

Provide Basic Literacy
We then built a User's Manual for basic uses. This was a half-day workshop that gave step-by-step, hands-on instruction on basic uses, such as connecting to a home network, printing, connecting to Citrix, using Open Office, using Evolution for e-mail, etc.

The workshop that our teachers went through was broken up and teachers used that same curricula to teach students when we handed out the laptops. Thus, teachers were quite engaged because they would be teaching those lessons in a matter of days.

We took a whole day to do the workshop even though it was a half-day curriculum so teachers had time to reflect, ask questions and prepare themselves to be comfortable enough to train students on their new found knowledge.

On-going Support through the First Year
At Whitfield, we have faculty meetings for about an hour and a half once a month. Our Dean of Faculty, Larry Hays, has done a great job of surgically removing the announcements from these meetings so we have time to engage in professional development.

At the beginning of the year, we broke up into groups so teachers in the pilot (11th and 12th grade teachers) had time to express concerns and learn from one another. As the year went on, we learned that our teachers concerns indicated to us that our teachers were not looking at the program through the same looking glass. The problem was not the technology so much as it was what we were doing with it and how we were viewing it. Thus, we changed what we were doing in our breakout groups during our monthly meetings.

Mission Driven Development
Larry is an excellent writer and wrote a short essay tying the findings of the report A Nation at Risk to the core principles of our school mission. This was not much of a stretch as Whitfield is a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools whose model of education was created as a direct response to the findings of A Nation at Risk.

We then looked at the principles and tried to align our use of the laptops with our goals. We spent three months on this process. First we looked at the principles and aligned our teaching with them. Then we talked about how we could use the laptops and technology to enhance the presence of these principles in our courses. Lastly, we listed specific ways we are (or intended to) use these tools as instruments to further our mission.

This was an extremely valuable exercise. The best part about it was that it removed the focus from the technology and placed it on the mission. The technology ceased to become demonized then and was looked at as a tool to help in mission fulfillment, when appropriate and possible.

The Passing of Wisdom
At the end of the year, we do three days of professional development. About half of this three day block was spend on helping the 9th and 10th grade teachers prepare for the upcoming year when their students would get laptops. The 11th and 12th grade teachers broke into teams and worked with teams of 9th and 10th grade teachers to share what they had learned and shared "best practices."

This time was also designed to give teachers the time to express their fears and concerns. The experienced teachers did a wonderful job of realistically helping teachers deal with their concerns to design appropriate classroom experiences.

Ownership in Planning
At the beginning of the year, we do another couple of days of professional development with teachers before students arrive. We spent a very short time displaying the differences in the laptop design (we upgraded from NLD9 to SLED 10). We then let grade level teams divide into groups and decide how they were going to do the roll-out training. This decision was a direct result of feedback we got from them the first year. They now felt comfortable enough with the technology, they wanted greater control on when students received the computers and how the process would go. The only parameter we gave them is that it needed to happen within the first two weeks of school.

Some grades did it in a half day. Some grades took a whole day and one grade did a concentrated half-day session followed by a week of follow up training. It looks like a full day of training worked best but, to be honest, it doesn't matter. The value came from teachers owning the process. This way, when things went awry (because they always do, it's technology!) teachers dealt with it the way they would when things don't go well with one of their lessons. There was very little demonizing of technology during those two weeks. I was SO proud of our teachers

Reduction of Emphasis

We now seldom talk about technology in our monthly meetings. Teachers in each grade level get together each week to talk about grade level issues and student concerns. Laptop issues frequently get brought up but sometimes are not discussed because there is no need. That's transparency!

We are now working with 6th - 8th grade teachers to prepare them for their roll-out. We have planned for the "passing of wisdom" activities for them in the final months of the school year. We will also give grade levels time to plan their own roll-outs again.

Lessons Learned
Over the last two years, this is what I have learned about professional development:
  1. Stop talking and listen - Giving faculty a voice is essential to meeting them where they are
  2. Give ownership - Teachers know what teachers need and they carry the credibility to pull it off better than any technology director
  3. Support individualized initiative and grow from the bottom up - Look for innovation or even teachers asking the right questions and give them the help they need to grow. Then let those teachers share their experiences with other teachers. The bottom up model always has stronger roots than the top down model.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Would you, could you, if you saved $2 million?

March is conference month for me this year. I kicked off conference month two days early by attending and presenting at the Midwest Education Technology Conference in St. Louis. I am currently soaking up ideas from brilliant people at the National Association of Independent Schools Conference in Denver.

I gave a presentation on Open Source tools at METC and was heckled by a bright guy named Steve Pillow from Raymore-Peculiar School District. In addition to a state championship football team, they've got a high caliber Technology Coordinator. Steve took a few jabs during my presentation which, as a former debate coach, I enjoy! We spoke after the presentation and he really got me thinking.

Steve presented many of the obstacles he faces in his his district. I may have misperceived him but it appeared as though he saw some of the value of 1:1 programs (where each student has their own mobile computer) but dismissed it because his superintendent believed they couldn't afford it. I suspect that is not uncommon. In fact, I would guess many districts don't even go as far as Steve and his superintendent and simply dismiss it outright.

Next year, when we roll out our laptops to the last group of students and implement some of the efficiencies and enhancements we have learned over the last three years, we will save our school $200,000 per year when compared to a traditional model of a laptop program. I asked Steve how many students he had and he responded 6,000. That means, conservatively, his school could save $2 million each year versus the model he spoke to his superintendent about.

Now, anyway you cut it, computers at a 1:1 ratio are more expensive than a 4:1 ratio. However, shouldn't $2 million per year allow you to get your foot in the door? Let this Linux/Citrix model allow your school to start having the conversation.

Now, in an earlier post, I explain "why Linux." However, Mike Vitiello, who runs a great program called challenged me saying Linux is not for everyone. ABSOLUTELY! Mac isn't for everyone and Windows isn't for everyone but creating environments for our students to be empowered, creative, collaborating learners MUST be for everyone and well-done 1:1 programs do this as well or better than anything.

You see, that's the goal. We want engaged, creative, collaborative 21st Century literate students. I don't care how we get it. I just don't want the majority of our population left out because they didn't know they had other options.