Chesterfield County Schools Turn to Sphere 3D for Windows on Chromebooks

Sphere3DUnless you work in education you might not know it, but Microsoft and Apple have a serious and growing Chromebook problem. According to data from Futuresource Consulting, Chromebook adoption has grown from less than 1% of all devices shipped within the education market in 2012 to more than 25% of shipments in Q4 2013. Earlier this month, Google announced that Chesterfield County Public Schools, one of the one hundred largest school systems in the US, was buying 32,000 Dell Chromebooks, one for each of its middle and high school students.

What is driving this change, and what does it mean for Windows in education?

Chesterfield County Public Schools (CCPS) has published a report, Comparing Mobile Computing Devices in the Context of Teaching and Learning, that explains both why it is implementing a one laptop per student program, and why it has selected Chromebook as its platform of choice. The move to one laptop per student is in part driven by the Virginia Department of Education, which has recently adopted a policy requiring online testing for all state-administered exams. At the same time, CCPS has recognized that it cannot adequately prepare students for college and careers with only limited access to computers and the Internet. Virginia and CCPS are early movers in what is called an inevitable trend that will require much greater demand for computers in education. The laptop cart that is wheeled into classrooms was never more than a compromise to address the high cost of equipping schools with enough computers to go around. Now, the change in emphasis in the use of computers in education, coupled with the dramatic reduction in cost per student that low-end laptops, Chromebooks, and tablets of all types offer, are together creating the demand and the opportunity to give every student his or her own device.

CCPS compared six different devices before selecting Chromebook as its ideal educational computing platform. Alongside the Dell Chromebook, CCPS looked at a conventional Windows 7 laptop also provided by Dell, as well as four different tablets: an iPad Mini, an Amazon Fire, a Google Nexus 7, and a 10-inch Windows 8 Professional tablet. Notably absent from the list was an Apple MacBook; however, given the cost differential between the cheapest MacBook and a comparable Windows laptop, it is easy to understand why it was not considered. Even if the MacBook had been selected as the best platform, it would have been very difficult to justify the additional cost.

The four tablets were rejected  in large part due to shortcomings that directly hampered student education. Lack of an integrated physical keyboard is a major drawback shared by all tablets. Touchscreens aren’t viable for extended use, and it’s hard to image a typical Bluetooth keyboard withstanding the rigors of high school. Screen size and browser compatibility also contributed to the decision not to pursue tablets (Apple’s decision not to offer support for Flash was highlighted as a problem, as were difficulties with Internet Explorer on Windows 8). CCPS also uncovered technical challenges with network integration and application deployment that would have required additional enterprise mobility management software and significant changes to the CCPS network to address.

The introduction of an additional 32,000 devices increases the overall number of devices under CCPS control to about 50,000. Supporting a network larger than that of most large enterprises with the resources available to a school system is a major challenge. As a consequence, the final decision to select Chromebooks was just as much about ease of administration as it was about price.

CCPS had already adopted Google Docs as its standard office application suite. With a total of forty other apps from the Google Marketplace already in use, having to maintain two separate management systems, one for the operating system and one for applications, would be a large and unwelcome administrative overhead for a lean IT support team. Chrome OS is self-managing, making it an attractive option from the outset.

At the same time, CCPS has determined that Google’s Chrome Web Store, in conjunction with the Google Apps Marketplace, provides it with the flexibility it needs to manage application distribution to schools, classes, and individual machines without needing to invest in new enterprise mobility management software. Ultimately, CCPS decided that the low cost and ease of management of a system built around Dell Chromebooks presented the best opportunity for delivering on its commitments while staying within budget. Certainly, the Dell Chromebook appears to be robust enough for the task. It’s a far cry from the first-generation Chromebooks offered by Acer and Samsung. Only the lack of a backlit keyboard is holding me back from buying my own as a travel device.

Although CCPS had already standardized on Google Apps, it still uses Windows applications where necessary to support the curriculum, Photoshop in art classes and AutoCAD for teaching design and drafting being cases in point. Happily, the transition to Chromebooks will not mean that CCPS students have to abandon their “legacy” Windows applications. Running Windows applications on non-Windows endpoints is nothing new. Solutions such as Citrix XenApp and Microsoft’s native RDS implementations are robust, mature platforms; however, the skills needed to support the operation of scale are still at a premium. Taking on the complexity of managing a large Citrix XenApp environment was not something that CCPS wanted to have to address. At the same time, it wanted to ensure that any hosted Windows applications could be easily integrated into its own application portal. To overcome the challenges, CCPS has partnered with Mississauga, Ontario–based Sphere 3D, developers of Glassware 2.0, to provide Windows application hosting services. Sphere 3D provides Glassware 2.0 as an appliance-based hosting platform for installation either within a customer’s data center or as a cloud hosting solution offered by service providers. Sphere 3D company V3 Systems was one of the pioneers of high-performance VDI appliances, so it is to be expected that it knows how to make this approach work.

As ever, there is a significant degree of risk to working with a new entrant to the market. However, an initial review of Glassware suggests that it is both stable and performs well. At the same time, Sphere 3D looks to be large enough to be able to support a growing customer base and diverse enough (Sphere 3D recently acquired Overland Storage) not to suffer the same fate that befell some of the early VDI innovators. In many respects, Glassware today looks very much like Kaviza before its acquisition by Citrix in 2011. Glassware is a simple, scale-out, do-one-job-well hosting platform developed from a clean sheet without the encumbrances of needing to integrate with a larger product suite, arriving at a point during which its target markets are seeing rapid growth.

There is a lot to be said for Glassware’s approach to Windows application delivery. Glassware is highly optimized for ease of administration, taking as few as six clicks to package and deploy a Windows application. It is too soon to say whether this approach will provide Sphere 3D with any long-term advantage. Many service providers today already run in-house developed management interfaces to streamline operations, while Citrix has recently entered the field with Workspace Services. However, in order to complete in this specific market, Citrix will have to go beyond delivering a toolkit and provide customers with finished sets of optimized administration products and dramatically cut the cost of licensing.

As more school districts follow Virginia’s lead in adopting online testing for state exams and in acknowledging the need for greater access to computers within schools, it is inevitable that low-cost, easy to manage Chromebooks will continue to gain market share. At the same time, while Windows applications may now be considered “legacy” in some education environments, they will not go away overnight. Hybrid environments combining Chrome OS apps with Windows apps will become increasingly important for education organizations in particular, and in the longer term for a larger number of enterprise organizations. So far, the choices available to school district IT staff attempting to address this need have been limited to engaging in managed services agreements, or having to deal with the complexity of enterprise applications designed for organizations with larger and in some cases more highly skilled IT teams. By providing a low-overhead Windows application hosting service as an adjunct to its Chromebook-led desktop strategy, CCPS is showing that it can afford to keep Windows applications longer without letting the tail wag the dog.