Reducing Software Costs and Improving Performance with Server Based Computing

Classroom computing in graduate education continues to grow as more and more schools include the use of sophisticated software programs in their curriculums. Unfortunately many of these statistics and modeling applications are quite expensive and require significant processing power. The Graduate School of Business and Public Policy at the Naval Postgraduate School is using server-based computing to control software costs and improve the performance of applications. This paper describes the school’s use of Microsoft’s Remote Desktop Services to deliver applications to networked student computers. The virtual delivery of the software, which runs on a server, eliminates the need to install the software on every student computer. Depending on the software licensing structure, this can significantly reduce the required number of licenses. For some applications it can also dramatically improve performance.

Introduction

In 2004 the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy (GSBPP) at the Naval Postgraduate School built a prototype smart classroom seating 45 students with networked laptop PCs at every seat. Infusing computer technology into the traditional lecture based classroom proved to be a resounding success and that classroom quickly became the most frequently requested room every quarter. Faculty reported they could cover up to 20% more material in the same amount of time. The improved efficiency was the result of the professors being able to optimize classroom time by using computer based tools whenever it was appropriate rather than having to wait for a specific hour of the week when they had access to a computer lab. In the past, courses would be divided between lecture based classroom time and one or two hours per week of computer lab. Another instructional example is the use of the Internet to access on-line databases such as federal budget information in order to bring current budget issues into the classroom at the same time they are being addressed by the government. Thanks to the concurrency of access to the data and the issues at hand, the relevance of the materials becomes immediately apparent to the student (Doyle, 2010). Beyond the instructional advantages, research has also shown a significant increase in the level of student interaction when computer mediated communications are incorporated into the education process (Brinkley, 2003).

 

The success of the prototype project generated a demand to install computers for every student in as many classrooms as possible. As of May, 2013, GSBPP maintains approximately 200 computers spread across six classrooms and another 35 laptops in a mobile cart ready to deploy to any of the other classrooms as needed. The school tries to adhere to a three year lifecycle replacement plan to keep the systems up to date. Unfortunately budget constraints often preclude replacement of the systems exactly as planned. The high cost of analytical software competes directly with the purchase of new hardware when limited resources are available.

Setting

The Graduate School of Business and Public Policy is one of four academic schools that make up the Naval Postgraduate School (NPS). NPS is located in Monterey, California and was established in 1909 to serve the advanced educational needs of the United States Navy. It has since been expanded to support students from the other U.S. military services and foreign countries as well. The total student population consists of approximately 1,500 students coming from all branches of the U.S. defense community and the military services of more than 25 allied nations.

NPS is a well diversified, fully accredited graduate school with a proud history of academic excellence. This paper focuses on the classroom technologies employed by the Graduate School of Business and Public Policy (GSBPP). Classrooms within GSBPP are designed to accommodate an average of thirty to forty students. Continuously seeking to improve, GSBPP evaluates and considers the adoption of new technologies that can further improve teaching effectiveness and efficiency.

Results for GSBPP

As stated earlier, GSBPP maintains approximately 235 computer systems for use in the school’s resident graduate programs. It is the school’s policy to give as much autonomy as possible to professors choosing what software they wish to teach with. One benefit of this approach is that it ensures the professors are proficient and comfortable teaching their respective applications to their students. A disadvantage is that some programs are only used by a few professors for just a few courses. This makes it impractical to buy and install every application on every GSBPP computer system.

One example of the software used is a statistical analysis program called Crystal Ball. This program was requested by only one professor whose class size was normally less than 25. GSBPP could not install the software in just one classroom because the school’s academic scheduling model is such that the classroom assignments change every quarter. GSBPP had no way of knowing which classroom Crystal Ball would be needed in advance of the quarter beginning. GSBPP could not afford to install the software on all 235 systems due to limited resources. The total annual cost for 235 licenses would have been approximately $22,000. The GSBPP solution was to purchase the needed 25 licenses, at a cost of only $3,000, and install the software on the RDS application server. This facilitated the virtual delivery of the software to whichever classroom it was required in. The only restriction was the limit of 25 concurrent users. In this case the use of the RDS application server meant the difference between approving the use of Crystal Ball or having to deny its use due to budget constraints.

Another important benefit to the RDS virtual delivery model is the reduced technical support man-hours needed to install, configure and maintain the software. GSBPP only needs to maintain the one instance of the software loaded on the server vice installing, configuring and updating the software on each end-user system.

Both the cost savings and reduced technical support man-hours were anticipated outcomes due to the known benefits of centralization and virtualization. Another unexpected benefit was realized during the postinstallation testing phase. There was a significant increase in application performance. GSBPP developed a specific statistical model to evaluate and benchmark the performance of the software. The model was executed in several different usage scenarios in order to compare the performance under different situations. The first test was designed to establish the performance baseline of how the software ran in the old stand-alone environment. For this test the software was loaded and run on the local student computer hard drive. This represented what could be expected if GSBPP had purchased a license for each student computer instead of using the RDS application server. It took the standalone computer 33 seconds to finish the model’s calculations. The next test used the RDS application server to run the software with only one client connection. This time the model was completed in just 19 seconds. The explanation for this 42% improvement is easily explained by the much higher grade of computer being used for the server compared to the student computers. The next test was designed to measure the performance with multiple client connections since the job of an RDS application server is to support many users. There would be times when the same model would be executed by multiple students simultaneously. To test this scenario several users were recruited to execute the model on seven different clients at exactly the same second. This instantaneous access would show GSBPP what to expect when a professor was teaching the software in a classroom environment. GSBPP expected some decrease in performance which would represent the sacrifice needed to achieve the many benefits of virtualization. Instead, there was yet another increase in performance and the model completed in just 11 seconds. The hypothesis for this additional improvement is that much of the software’s program was still in the computer’s cache memory when each subsequent client needed to access it. Having the needed software code available in cache memory saved the server from having to load it from the internal hard drive.

Conclusion and Findings

As of May 2013, the school’s current iteration of the RDS application server had been operational for six months. During this time all of the RDS benefits listed above were confirmed. The primary goals of achieving cost savings and a more efficient centralized configuration management environment were clearly met. The added benefit of improved application performance was also sustained throughout the six months of real-world classroom teaching. GSBPP does not expect all applications to achieve the same performance benefits as measured for Crystal Ball. However the testing does show the RDS model offers significant benefits in the academic environment and should be considered as a part of an overall IT strategy.

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