For IT support consultants like Nick Carino-Marek (left), using the central PXE/Netboot service frees more time to work directly with users. Photo credit: Mark Fullenkamp

When you manage thousands of computers for 40-plus departments spread across 28 buildings, reliability and efficiency are key.

That’s why the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS) started using PXE and Netboot to image new or repurposed machines. The approach let IT consultants install up-to-date operating systems from the network rather than carrying around removable media or lugging computers back to the shop.

But the method presented certain limitations. Most notably, each CLAS subnet needed its own PXE and Netboot servers—virtual machines running on dozens of Mac Minis that themselves required maintenance and periodic replacement.

The prospect of replacing all this hardware prompted the CLAS IT Group to explore alternatives with OneIT colleagues. The result is a new central service that takes PXE and Netboot campus-wide.

Building off the CLAS model

PXE (short for Preboot eXecution Environment) images Windows and Linux systems, while Netboot images Macs. CLAS started running them on Macbride Hall’s network in 2011.

“The concept caught on, and within a few years we were running PXE and Netboot servers everywhere from Art Building West to the Wendell Johnson Speech and Hearing Clinic,” says Jenifer Steil, IT manager for Extended Technical Support. “It was just so convenient and saved so much time.”

Last year, CLAS requested funds to refresh some of its PXE/Netboot servers, which sparked the idea of expanding the service to cover the whole campus.

“CLAS had created the framework,” says Tim Wolf, manager of the Enterprise Client Management Team. “We wanted to see if we could take it one step further.”

Campus-wide, the university manages 149 subnets. CLAS’s PXE/Netboot service was running on 24 of them. Installing and maintaining another 125 Mac Minis and associated software licenses didn’t seem practical or cost-effective.

Instead, Wolf and the project team tested the idea of running central PXE and Netboot servers at the Information Technology Facility data center.

“We wanted to make sure the CLAS service wasn’t degraded in any way,” Wolf says. “From the start, our goal was to provide the same level of service or better.” This meant accounting for unit-specific needs, including a specialized Linux service for the Department of Computer Science.

The result: IT pros today can image any kind of machine located virtually anywhere on campus via the network.

More users, faster response times

For longtime users of the CLAS service, the switch means more support and even greater reliability.

“Now we have three or four times as many people using the service,” says Nick Carino-Marek, collegiate team lead and IT support consultant with Extended Technical Support. “Issues get identified and resolved more quickly.”

Some CLAS consultants wondered whether a central service would prove less responsive than a service developed and managed at the college level, but Carino-Marek says that hasn’t been the case.

“The OneIT team is a lot bigger than any of the collegiate teams,” he says. “They can package updates and test new builds faster than we sometimes could do on our own.”

Simply replacing the old CLAS service with the central service would have saved about $1,700 per year. Covering the whole campus using centralized servers should cost about $13,000 annually—a major savings over the nearly $60,000 per year it would have cost to take the distributed server model campus-wide.

These figures don’t factor in reduced demands on front-line staff, who can devote more time to addressing other needs.

“This project responds to the OneIT charge to manage services centrally whenever it makes sense and saves money and time,” Wolf says. “It lets IT consultants focus on helping staff and faculty solve problems.”