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Sky’s the limit for Bermuda students with cloud computing

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Two Bermuda schools are adopting some cutting edge technology that some big international businesses haven’t even gotten on board with yet. They’re going to the cloud and a local start-up is helping them get there.

Warwick Academy and Impact Mentoring Academy are phasing out their old PCs and ways of thinking and are moving to virtualisation and cloud computing with the help of Cirrus Dynamics, a local technology firm that’s offering a first of its kind technology in Bermuda.

Both schools say the new technology will help them cut costs, be more environmentally friendly and give their students the opportunity to use the most up-to-date technology on the market.

The technology Cirrus Dynamics offers is Desktops as a Service (DaaS), also called virtual desktop or hosted desktop services. Simply put, it allows the schools to have one ‘virtual desktop’ that several other computers can tap into.

“What I find most effective is to compare it to the electricity grid,” said Kelland Hayward of Cirrus Dynamics. “I find a lot of people can grasp that concept. Back in the day, people would produce their own electricity. Companies would have their own generators and would have to manage and maintain it until eventually someone said, ‘listen if we take on doing all the work in the background and allow you to just plug in, that’s a far better model.’ And so, this is cloud computing.”

Essentially, all of the processing work happens in one of Cirrus’s two data centres (located in Montreal, Canada and St David’s) rather than inside each individual computer, which extends the life of a PC. This, the company explains, helps eliminate a painful and expensive problem every school, organisation and business has, which is dealing with ageing computers and coming up with the money to replace them often enough to stay current with the latest technology.

The new service has helped both schools get rid of old, dated, energy-sucking PCs and replace them with energy and cost-efficient ‘thin clients’ which are fanless desktop appliances that have no hard drive or moving parts inside. All of the features typically found on a desktop PC, including applications, programmes, processing and memory, are stored in the data centre when using a thin client. DaaS enables people to remotely access those programs and data via the internet (or ‘the cloud’).

Maurice Lowe, Warwick Academy’s network manager and IT specialist says the Cirrus system not only gives Warwick’s 768 students access to the latest and greatest software, it allows them to access it from anywhere in the world, on any type of device.

“It’s called ‘beyond the classroom’ that’s the latest thing in education right now,” Mr Lowe said. “This computer lab here is the design and technology lab, so it has specialised software that those students would use. What virtual desktops through Cirrus Dynamics allows us to do is access the programs that we have here on campus on any device that has an internet connection on a phone, on the iPad, on a laptop, a computer at home any device. And they have access to it anytime, anywhere,” he said.

Schools all around the world that are struggling to contain costs while keeping classrooms technologically current are looking to virtualisation and cloud computing as a means to achieve both of those ends.

“We actually targeted the schools because we felt that the savings could be realised really quickly,” said Cirrus Dynamics’ Ralph Richardson.

“Their needs are a little bit more critical in terms of being a non-profit. They’re looking not to have to replace computers. We went to one school and said, ‘how would you like to not have to purchase computers ever again?’ and they said, ‘sounds too good to be true’, but when we talked to them, we let them know that is now a reality.”

Before signing on with Cirrus, Warwick Academy had been using a different virtualisation technology through Citrix a system that had a start-up cost of $20,000-$30,000 and a subscription fee of $3,000-5,000 a year.

“We had to buy all of the hardware and infrastructure to set it up,” said Mr Lowe. But despite the large capital investment, he said that company’s technology just wasn’t working for them and they were relieved to discover what Cirrus Dynamics had to offer.

“Cirrus came along and offered us a free proof of concept, or trial-run, to prove that their technology actually fit our needs. So we outfitted the lab with virtual desktops and it’s been a major improvement,” he said. “Now, we’ve eliminated those costs all together so it’s really cost-conscious for Warwick Academy. Being a non-profit that’s major for us.”

Mr Lowe said signing up with Cirrus didn’t cost them a thing and they pay less than $50 a month per virtual desktop for the service. At the moment, they have 25 virtual desktops and plan to increase to 50 over the summer. That means 25 people can use the system simultaneously.

Cirrus says the service is scalable for schools and companies large and small. When a prospective customer approaches them about the service, the first thing they do is assess how many people will need to be on the system at any given time and assign them that many virtual desktops. Later, the customer can easily adjust to more or fewer desktops as their needs change.

Impact Mentoring Academy says cost, flexibility and good customer service were all major selling points for them. With only twenty students and eight staff, they’re always trying to minimise costs and get the most for their money.

“We want to try and make every resource as efficient as possible so that we don’t have to dedicate too much time to maintaining computers,” said Kenneth Simons, cloud computing project coordinator. “We want to put all our energy into just focusing on getting the boys the information they need and help them in their development.”

Impact liked that there were no start-up costs, no hardware to buy and that students will have a pristine new computer at all times from now on. The school is running Cirrus’s virtual desktop system on their existing PCs which will all eventually be swapped out for thin clients.

“Each PC is in the price range of about two grand and that’s minimum,” Mr Simons said. “When we actually switch over to the thin client, we’re looking at paying $350-$400 each to replace them. So there’s a huge cost savings right there. And because we’re a school that has to be mindful of economising in every way, it also will decrease our electricity costs.”

Cirrus says traditional desktop computers generate a lot of heat, which uses a lot of electricity not to mention the fan that needs to run to cool it or how much energy the monitor uses.

“Some of these PCs you’re looking at anywhere from 250-350 watts,” Mr Hayward said. “But these thin clients are anywhere from six to nine watts.”

“The savings are significant. The whole concept of cloud computing saves money,” said Mr Richardson. “Every computer has a shelf-life so they depreciate over three to five years before they slow down. At some point, with the advances in technology and software, the computers just won’t run anymore.

“You’ve got to increase the RAM or replace it altogether. But now you’ve got a computer that’s never going to slow down running on a machine that will last anywhere from seven to ten years and are only $350 to replace.”

But cost and environmental concerns weren’t the only motivating factors behind Impact going to the cloud. Trace White, the school’s executive director said he feels cloud computing it the wave of the future something he wants his students to understand.

“One of the things that appealed to me is that in the job market in the western world, 70 percent of the new jobs are in science and technology. So for me, it was a no-brainer,” Mr White said. “This is what the children have to not only get used to in terms of using it in an environment, but conceptually if they can understand how this stuff works, this is going to put them leaps and bounds ahead of others,” he said. “That scored as one of the top advantages because it’s giving them exposure to something they are going to have a lot of use for in their adult lives.”

“For a school where the sky is the limit, we’re using the cloud as our platform to get us there,” Mr Simons said.

Cirrus says Impact Academy is the first to be fully in the cloud. “Warwick Academy still house their servers and data on-site and we provide the virtual desktops. At Impact Academy, the servers, desktops, everything they gave it all to us to handle for them,” Mr Hayward said. “So they’re the first full cloud, or what we call ‘the end game’ because that’s where it’s all going.

Terrance Dean, Cirrus’s chief technology officer says Impact is providing its students with capabilities that cost most businesses big bucks.

“Impact is a very small school, they didn’t have any prior infrastructure but they’re able to get enterprise-grade capabilities without having to come up with any huge capital investment,” Mr Dean said. “All the stuff that we’re doing, you could build in-house, but it would cost you hundreds of thousands of dollars to do it.”

Mr Simons said before Cirrus came along, they were on an operating system that’s becoming extinct. “We had Windows XP on our machines, but with the cloud environment they’re providing, migrating to a new, more advanced operating system was just so easy like the flip of a switch.”

“XP is drawing to a close, so Microsoft’s not going to be supporting it past a certain date which is coming up soon, so people are looking to move desktops to Windows 7 and they’re finding out their hardware won’t support it so they have to throw out those PCs and buy new ones,” Mr Dean said. “With this model, Impact can have Windows 7 desktops in the cloud and they don’t have to rip and replace those computers.”

“In fact, we have a relationship with Microsoft where whenever they roll out a new release, we can go straight into that environment without having to worry about all of the maintenance required with installing new software. The cloud makes it that simple.”

Cirrus Dynamics says thin client solutions aren’t just for schools. They say businesses can benefit from the cost savings, efficiency and security cloud computing provides.

“We have potential clients that we’re talking to now who have execs that travel abroad,” Mr Richardson said. “With this, because you have a remote computer to start off with it doesn’t really matter where you are. You could be in China as long as you’ve got access to the internet, you can get your full desktop the full thing, all of the drives, all of the functionality and you can do that with your iPad so you don’t have to lug your laptop with you unless you have a lot of typing to do. It even allows you to run Flash on your Mac or iPad because if you go through your virtual desktop that runs Flash, it’ll work. You’re effectively turning your iPad into a PC.”

Cirrus Dynamics is the only start-up company to partner with Desktone Inc to provide scalable, virtual desktops as a subscription service in Canada and Bermuda. Other Desktone partners include IBM, Verizon and Bank of America. And just last week, Dell computers announced they are now partnering with the company to offer virtual computers.

“They’ve chosen the same model that we’re using which is pretty big news,” Mr Richardson said. “I think Dell, like a lot of computer makers is seeing the demise of the computer as we know it, so they’ve gotten in the virtual and cloud business.”

Efficient environment: Impact Mentoring Academy teacher Kenneth Simons shows his student Marion Darrell how to use the school?s new cloud computing system (Photo by Akil Simmons)
Any time, anywhere, any device: Warwick Academy network manager Maurice Lowe demonstrates virtual desktops on a variety of devices (Photo by Akil Simmons)

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Published April 09, 2012 at 2:00 am (Updated April 09, 2012 at 9:37 am)

Sky’s the limit for Bermuda students with cloud computing

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