Windows XP: The End is Here
By Brian Nadel
April 8, 2014, was a bad day for schools—it marked the end of Microsoft’s official support for Windows XP. After all, at 13 years old, the software was older than many of the students it was being used to teach and had been superseded by the release of three major operating systems in the intervening years.
Despite its age, XP served education well, and based on an Avast survey of 1,800 schools last year, 96 percent of them still use the venerable OS. Most continue to put off upgrading to newer software because XP is simple, effective, and able to use a slew of software titles.
It’s time to put XP in the IT rearview mirror and not look back, but schools still using Windows XP face a crisis. Although they can continue to use the software, there’s no safety net—Microsoft will no longer provide support, bug fixes, new hardware drivers, or, most important, security updates. Schools are coping with the demise of XP in a variety of ways, from replacing computers wholesale to putting the software onto servers.
Here are three ways that schools are dealing with the situation.
Plan A deals with XP’s end by replacing it with new software. However, since most of the computers that currently use XP are too old to be converted to use Windows 7 or 8.1, upgrading them is a nonstarter. After including the setup and labor required for installation, the bill for a large district could hit seven or eight figures.
Plan B involves swapping XP-based PCs for inexpensive Android tablets, Chromebooks, or Linux-based computers. Their price tags can be half that of the typical PC notebook or desktop system, but on the downside, the assortment of available classroom titles is tiny compared with Windows.
Plan C lets schools continue to use their seemingly obsolete PCs by virtualizing the software on a server. The way that virtualization works requires rethinking how school computers interact. Forget about running software directly on the computer’s hard drive; think instead about using a server that sends the necessary graphic elements, commands, and data directly to each computer via a network connection.
Virtualization offers the best of both worlds: new software while continuing to use the old hardware. It allows schools to get several more years out of outdated computers because there is less computing stress placed on them. “Schools are using virtualization to move up to Windows 7. It’s a logical step away from XP,” says Dave Burton, vice president of marketing at NComputing.
With NComputing’s vSpace virtualization platform, every PC at school is turned into a thin client system, or the school can buy new thin client hardware. Regardless of whether a math teacher is showing how to add exponents, a student is researching an English paper at a library kiosk, or the assistant principal is collating the quarter’s grades, the systems look and act the same as always, right down to the ubiquitous Windows logo.
“It looks like Windows and acts like Windows,” explains Burton. “It runs all the software and is just as fast, but all the software is running on a server. They would be hard-pressed to tell the difference between native Windows and vSpace virtualizing it.”
Virtualization software does put extra stress on the school’s network because more data is flowing back and forth between system and server. The software avoids bottlenecks by automatically compressing data, caching the most frequently used items, and balancing the load among clients. That way, if a class opens up the same worksheet or watches the same video via vSpace, the system doesn’t come to a grinding halt.
This streamlining of the client–server relationship is done in the background. “Unlike VMware’s VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] system,” Burton says, “vSpace doesn’t require an army of IT staff.” In other words, VDI is more appropriate for a large corporation that has a dedicated IT staff to keep it running smoothly.
To make virtualization work, there’s a client app as well as a midrange server to house and distribute the software. Figure on setting up one vSpace server for every 100 clients versus less than half that for a VDI installation. It costs about $50 per seat when purchasing for hundreds of users, but NComputing counts concurrent users, and a school will likely never have every computer being used at the same time. According to Burton, a typical school with roughly 1,000 students and staff might need between 400 and 500 licenses.
Pana Community School District No. 8 in central Illinois replaced 400 XP-based computers for its 100 teachers and 1,400 students with vSpace running Windows 7 on a dozen servers. Rather than recycle its antediluvian PCs, the district went a step further and bought NComputing’s L300 thin clients and mated them with existing displays, keyboards, and mice. All told, the district had upfront costs that were between half and one-third what new PCs would have cost.
But, as most administrators know, purchase costs are only the start. Gartner analysts have estimated the total cost of ownership, which takes into account everything from initial outlays and maintenance to repairs and power costs. To nobody’s surprise, the typical PC setup is the most expensive at $2,290 in annual costs, with traditional VDI a close second at $1,982. The cost of setting up and running vSpace comes out on the low side at about $576 a year.
Schools can even save money by using vSpace to centrally manage their computers, which can lower support and maintenance costs dramatically. “Running a school network is never easy,” Burton says. “The software ensures that every computer has the most up-to-date drivers and software.”