WHIPTIAL – School’s out for spinning disks as the storage revolution rises to top of the class

From the days of the BBC Micro – with its LOGO program that taught children as young as six to code as they commanded an electronic “turtle” around the classroom floor – to the recent fashion for decking out teaching rooms with Internet-connected “smart” boards that facilitate collaborative learning, schools have over the years proven themselves to be enthusiastic early adopters of new technologies, using them to explore innovative ways of teaching and learning.

While the use of technology as an educational aid has undeniably evolved over the years, it would be fair to say that in many cases the underlying IT infrastructure – and storage technology in particular – has remained static.

But now many school IT managers find themselves turning to new technologies beyond the enhancement of pupils’ experiences of these “connected” forms of learning. They are seeking to ensure that their schools’ behind-the-scenes IT infrastructures are robust enough to sustain high levels of performance when it comes to handling the increased data transfer demands of virtualised environments and widespread simultaneous activity.

Technology that can boost performance in these areas is in high demand in schools, where it has become increasingly common over the last couple of years for lessons to be taken online, with each pupil participating and engaging with their teacher, their fellow pupils, and the lesson materials on their own laptop supplied and owned by the school.

This new model presents challenges for IT managers and teachers alike, as the performance of hardware and applications running on spinning disks buckles under the weight of 30 or more people all logging on, going online, and accessing, downloading, and saving documents at the same time. Teachers, meanwhile, bemoan the fact that large portions of their lessons pass by unproductively as it takes up to 30 minutes for everyone to boot up, log in, and be ready to work. This problem is then compounded by the limitations of the outdated hardware that schools can often struggle to justify the expense of updating or replacing.

In terms of the number of machines involved, schools can present similar IT challenges to those encountered in the enterprise environment. Like their counterparts in the business world, many school IT managers are now turning to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) as a long-term alternative to committing to the recurring cost and inconvenience of stripping out and replacing their schools’ IT infrastructure and equipment.

With large volumes of users performing IT tasks simultaneously, the storage drives accessing and transferring data need to be able to handle massive peaks and troughs in Input/Output Operations per Second (IOPS). This is exacerbated as schools make the transition to virtualised desktops, as VDI has much higher IOPS demands than those of traditional PC terminals.

This is the point at which storage becomes a crucial factor – if a school’s storage platform cannot supply the required number of IOPS to support the VDI, the performance of the virtual machines is crippled, and the situation is no more advanced than the pre-VDI days of half-hour log-on times.

It is for this reason that a number of schools are now replacing their existing spinning disk drives with the next wave of storage technologies, such as Flash – or solid-state – storage. While the HDD will always have its place – the low cost per gigabyte of storage space will ensure it remains highly valuable for storing non-performance-intensive data (that is, information that is simply being stored, rather than moved or frequently accessed) – the fact is that it is fundamentally unsuited to supporting high-performance applications such as virtualised server and desktop environments: it cannot achieve sufficient IOPS.

While the top priorities when it comes to selecting new drives will be speed and the ability to meet the IOPS demands of the VDI (and therefore ensure a good quality of user experience), the desire for high performance must always be balanced – especially in the state sector, where budgets are filled from the public purse – with delivering value for money.

As well as providing substantial performance improvements, solid-state storage can enable school IT managers to “future-proof” their infrastructures and justify their expenditure. By providing highly scalable IOPS to match changing demand at any particular time, SSDs allow servers to process more data in less time, thus representing a more power-efficient option than their spinning disk counterparts. This scalability also extends to capacity: solid-state storage arrays are easily upgraded and expanded, so there is no need for IT managers to buy entirely new boxes every year as storage demand grows, or to rip out old kit if they want to convert more of their storage to SSD. In the long run, the cost of ownership works out better than for HDD.

The advantages to the school IT manager of making the move to solid-state storage are obvious: the average time it takes a whole class to be logged-on and ready to work can be brought down from up to 30 minutes to as little as four; it is much easier to provide technical support for virtual PCs than for physical ones, as issues can be resolved remotely, on multiple machines at a time, without disrupting pupils or staff as they work; vast sums can be saved over the long term by ending the costly and tiresome practice of upgrading or replacing decrepit hardware every year when the summer holiday rolls around.

The education sector has so far barely scratched the surface of the benefits of SSD. As more and more institutions deploy VDI to reduce the traditional high turnover of hardware – and the associated cost – that blights the sector, they will find themselves becoming increasingly reliant on solid-state storage to provide the necessary resilience to highly demanding IOPS requirements. The fact of the matter is that the traditional HDD is no longer equipped to deliver the quality of end-user experience expected when young people’s educations are at stake.

Schools have changed a lot since the days of the LOGO turtle, but the wheels of the technology revolution keep on turning and IT managers need to keep up.

WHIPTAIL are a silver sponsor for this years Whitehall Media Enterprise Cloud Computing & Virtualization, to be held at the Hotel Russell, London, on the 7th March.