Just a year ago, there were few computers in the classrooms of the Army National Guard training facilities at Camp Shelby.
“We had no technology for the students in the classroom,” says retired Sgt. 1st Class Kim Locklear, who helped launch the desktop virtualization effort now under way. “They used paper notebooks to take notes, and they had a computer lab, but there was nothing in the classroom for them.”
But over the past year, that began changing dramatically, as a Guard team split its duties between other work assignments and rolling out a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) for the Guard members who travel from across the country to train at Camp Shelby.
Abutting the De Soto National Forest in southern Mississippi, Camp Shelby is one of the Army’s largest field training sites, spanning 136,000 acres. The Guard provides classroom training in two settings at the camp, in the 2nd Ordnance Training Battalion building and at the 3rd Noncommissioned Officers Academy facility.
The training staff has been deploying blade servers, thin clients and notebooks to the Guard classrooms in the two locations, creating virtual desktops for users. So far, it has outfitted six classrooms with 20 seats each, says Sgt. 1st Class Douglas B. Wall.
The management flexibility of virtual desktops is what makes the technology compelling to government IT, says Shawn P. McCarthy, director of research for IDC Government Insights. But the use of virtualized desktops in the government is not “terribly high at this point. The growing interest is centered around saving costs when it comes to managing PCs and managing operating system licenses,” McCarthy says. As it has had to do with server virtualization, IT must convince users that they are not giving up anything by consolidating the processing and services in the data center or server closet, he says.
From an IT perspective, VDI is quite enticing. Just ask Jack Nichols, director of enterprise operations for the Office of the Chief Administrative Officer at the House of Representatives. “Virtualizing the desktop has a lot of potential benefits for us from a support standpoint — the most bang for the buck,” says Nichols, whose organization so far has virtualized 200 servers supporting House members’ offices.
The 20 or so users in the typical House office each have a desktop, a notebook or both, he points out, and these users by nature are extremely transient, traveling back and forth between their Capitol Hill offices and their constituent offices several times a month. With VDI, the IT team in the Office of the CAO would be able to easily and securely support users no matter where they logged on to their systems, Nichols says. Plus, pushing out patches and updates would be simpler, he adds.
That centralized management capability was critically important to the part-time Guard IT team at Camp Shelby (Wall, for instance, divides up his time managing course curricula and instructors, teaching courses and providing tech support). “An intranet would have allowed for the same function” as the virtual desktops, Wall acknowledges. “However, if I have a problem with a virtual machine, whether it is a student connecting or using it, I can access it and work with it from one location. Also, if a virtual computer goes down, the student simply logs off, refreshes the thin client and logs back in.”
Setting the Course
Although the National Guard leadership at Shelby got the notion to bring computers into the classrooms after attending a workshop with the military academies, the final plan for establishing a virtual desktop infrastructure came later, as the staff considered possible options. Unlike the academies, where students spend four years enrolled in classes, Guard members attend classes sporadically for a few weeks at a time. Typically at Camp Shelby, there are up to 220 National Guard members training at any given time.
“In our environment, students are basically using the computers to access files, so a VDI system works great; a user logs in and the server gives them a computer,” Wall says.
Instruction for some courses takes place exclusively in the classroom, but in some cases, students also must work on military vehicles. For that reason, says Wall, the deployment plan calls for providing thin clients in some classrooms and notebooks with wireless access in others. Of the six live classrooms, half have notebooks and half run Wyse devices. In all, the National Guard has 26 classrooms at Shelby.
“The goal is to get the entire Ordnance building and our work bays set up with wireless so that the students will be able to take their laptops with them into the bays to work on vehicles,” Wall says. “The classrooms that are hard-wired will also have two laptops each for that purpose.”
At 2nd Ordnance, the Guard has five ClearCube R1200 blade PCs clustered as a server farm and 13 R2200 blades hosting 10 virtual machines each, for a total of 130 virtual computers. At the academy site, a comparable ClearCube blade cluster will support an environment four times that size. The systems, which rely on a virtual private network riding on the Army’s backbone LAN at Camp Shelby, use VMware View for the VDI.
Building a new virtual computer takes about 20 minutes, Wall says. The course materials are loaded as PDF files, and each user has access to Microsoft Office.
Training is less laborious in the outfitted classrooms, says Locklear. For some time, many of the instructors have used notebook PCs for their own notes and lesson plans. But students received large training manuals, and instructors would direct them to specific pages during lectures and classes.
Now, with the Wyse thin clients on students’ desks, “there’s no shuffling through 3-inch books,” she says. And, more important from a teaching perspective, “the instructors know the students are looking at the same things they are looking at,” which makes it easier for them to roam around the room and interact more with their students, Locklear says.
To prepare the staff of 30 instructors, Wall gives a quick primer on the concepts of a virtual environment, how it works and what they need to know to help students log in and access their files. All in all, the instructors who have used the system so far have accepted it quickly and painlessly, he says.
The move to a computerized training environment makes sense from a military know-how perspective, too. “It’s getting to the point that everyone needs to be able to use a computer,” Locklear says. “It used to be that for your very, very basic soldiering, you didn’t have to worry about a computer. But now as a soldier, you use a computer in just about everything you do.”