Tech support makes waves with Apple experiment

“We needed to stop the madness.”

By early 2005, the volume of computers filling various labs at Bemidji State University was, in the words of Director of Technical Support Brian Allen, “spiraling out of control.” More than 800 computers, both Windows and Macintosh platforms, were sprinkled throughout 76 computer labs on campus. In BSU’s SuperLab alone, there were 100 machines split nearly evenly between Mac and Windows.

Those 810 machines in 76 labs were supported by one person.

Additionally, BSU offers its faculty and staff access to a laptop program that distributes more than 300 machines, again divided nearly equally among Mac and Windows, every three years.

The number of computers on the Bemidji State campus continued to rise. Labs and classrooms were full to capacity with hardware, and yet if a particular machine might happen to fail, there was no common backup machine that could be brought in to replace it. In spite of a nearly-overwhelming volume of computers, a small number of system failures – sometimes just a single failed machine – began to affect productivity of faculty, staff and students.

Apple’s Announcement
On June 6, 2005, Apple, Inc. made an announcement regarding the future of the Macintosh that would set the stage for a solution to BSU’s ever-expanding inventory of computers — a plan to transition all of its hardware from PowerPC to Intel processors.

Apple’s move to Intel opened the door for Boot Camp – software which, for the first time, allowed Microsoft Windows to be installed on Apple hardware. Boot Camp, which is included in the latest version of Apple’s Macintosh operating system, MacOS X 10.5 Leopard, offers Intel Mac users the option to load either Windows or MacOS X by simply rebooting and selecting an operating system from an on-screen menu.

Like the proverbial light bulb going off over the head of a cartoon character during a “eureka!” moment, Apple’s announcement illuminated the pathway to a solution for Allen and BSU.

A single computer, capable of booting both MacOS X and Windows, would allow BSU to not only support a single hardware platform but also improve computer access to students. BSU could effectively increase the number of seats available for their operating system of choice while at the same time potentially reducing the actual number of computers in the campus labs.

The Groundwork
Allen and the other members of the BSU technical support staff began their experiment with one of the first Intel-powered iMacs and started with a clean slate.

First, Allen made contacts and inquiries with colleagues across the nation to find out if anybody else was doing what BSU was attempting to do with the dual-boot systems. When the answer, as expected, came back “no,” Allen’s team realized it could be paving the way for something revolutionary.

“We had this complex disc image that we needed to deliver – 100 Macintosh applications and 100 Windows applications,” Allen said. “We needed to put them both on the same machine to see how and if it would work.

“We took what we had, blew everything apart and then said ‘let’s rebuild this and make it do what we want,'” Allen said. “As we started playing around with these machines and the software, we came to the realization that we could do this.”

In the early stages, the system was held together by a thread. A two-page, step-by-step, process was developed for deploying disk images to the dual-boot machines, and developments with several open-source software packages helped overcome some of the early limitations. Early images could not be deployed to hard drives of different sizes, and an image built for use on a desktop computer such as an iMac could not be deployed to a MacBook laptop.

After struggling through the initial difficulties, Allen and the BSU technical support office refined the process and have now developed a single image that can be deployed to any Intel Mac.

Once the process of imaging the computers was perfected, the machines were ready for their trial by fire – a selection of the highest-horsepower Windows applications Allen and his staff could find on campus. Their short list included ArcGIS mapping software, AutoCAD for drafting and 3D Studio MAX for 3D modeling.

“Our first test case was running ArcGIS on a MacBook Pro,” Allen said. “We put a test group through the paces with that software and then asked for feedback.”

The only complaint? The resolution on the MacBook Pro was too high.

“Once we heard that,” Allen said, “we knew the program not only could work, but be hugely successful.”

Now, a pilot program is underway among a group of about 20 BSU faculty and staff to put the experiment through the trials of an everyday, real-world environment. Allen’s goal was to find a broad cross-section of faculty who were heavy Windows users that would put the machines to the test.

“We want to see if we can break this,” he said. “If it’s not going to work in a practical environment, we need to know.”

As a self-described “die-hard PC user,” Dr. Mur Gilman, department chair and professor of physical education, heath and sport, was an ideal candidate for the pilot project. After getting past the early learning curve, she has taken well to her new computer.

“It took about a day to get used to the keyboard,” Gilman said. “I had to learn some new keystrokes or connect an external mouse for some right-click shortcuts I like to use. Now, I don’t remember that I’m using a Mac except when I pull it out and see the Apple symbol on the lid.”

Savings Potential
Allen estimates the cost savings to the University due to the dual-boot hardware project could approach $2 million over a three-year period. Reducing the number of computers on campus from 810 to about 400 during a future hardware refresh cycle could save the University $800,000 in hardware alone.

In addition, with software licenses often offered on a per-computer basis rather than per-operating system, a dual-boot system could require only one license to have both a Windows and Macintosh version installed. For a large, complex software package like the Adobe Creative Suite that savings could total as high as $400 per install. Similar potential license cost reductions across the 100 Macintosh and 100 Windows applications being deployed on these computers could see the savings skyrocket.

“We’re doing this to restructure and reinvent how the labs are done by combining and reducing the number of machines on campus,” Allen said. “But at the same time, we are maintaining or even expanding the coverage we’re providing.

“The common knock on Apple hardware is that the machines are more expensive up-front,” Allen said. “But in a recent laptop purchase, we picked up 75 Gateway machines and around 100 MacBooks. We had about two dozen Gateways die, and only two or three failed MacBooks.

“The Apple hardware is rock-solid,” Allen added. “The machines may be more expensive up front, but it’s a far better return on investment.”

However, the dollars saved might not be the most visible impact of the program on BSU’s students. For them, the benefit comes in saved time and increased productivity.

“This program could end up being a tremendous benefit to the students on campus,” Scott Theisen, a technical support analyst at BSU, said. “Today, if a student needs to go into a lab and, for whatever reason, there’s only Macintosh or only Windows computers open, they’re stuck with what’s available. Now they can sit down at any machine and do what they need to do. That leads to a big increase in productivity.”

Generating a Buzz
As Bemidji State’s experiment has moved forward, people from across the country and around the world have slowly started to take notice.

“We haven’t done much to publicize what we’re doing with this program, but word of mouth has spread,” Allen said. “People have been calling us – some from as far away as Scotland. Some CIOs have said ‘pfft, there’s no way this would work,’ but as college campuses are starting to see more and more Macintosh computers appear, people are calling and saying, ‘OK, how are you guys doing this?'”

Apple, Inc. has taken notice of the efforts at BSU as well. As the first campus in the state of Minnesota to deploy the BootCamp technologies on such a wide scale, Bemidji State will be profiled at as a “higher education success story.” Apple will focus on BSU’s use of Boot Camp in a large-scale lab environment – the Deputy Hall SuperLab.

In Feb. 2008, Allen and his staff also will be presenting their work at the Society of Applied Learning and Technology’s New Learning Technologies (SALT) Conference in Orlando, Fla. That conference will continue SALT’s practice of bringing together senior professionals from government, industry, academia and the military to present the latest developments in the field of learning and training technologies.

“Getting this up and running has required a tremendous amount of extra work by our staff,” Allen said. “But the work being done now will equal dramatically more work saved down the road if this program is implemented.

“We have really taken to this with the researcher mentality,” Allen added. “We’ve had a lot of fun getting to play around with this and see the results. We’ve said ‘Hey, what if we do this?’ and we’ve tried it. We’ve always found that it led something good.”