The Mac Beat

BSU Standardizes on Apple Hardware for Dual-Boot Initiative


In the mixed computing environments common on university campuses, supporting multiple operating systems and myriad hardware configurations can be a nightmare for IT. In the past (and in some cases up through the present), one solution has been to go with a single platform. Great for IT. Not so great for users. But at Bemidji State University in Minnesota, they've come up with another solution: to standardize the machines but to continue to offer choices in operating systems by providing faculty and students with dual- and triple-boot systems based on Apple hardware.

In early 2006, Apple rolled out its first Intel-based Mac systems. Apple had for years been moving away from proprietary or exclusive technologies toward widespread industry standards inside and outside their systems--from connectivity to drive interfaces to GPUs. But the final move to Intel chips last year brought about a possibility that had never existed before: running Windows and other operating systems natively on Apple hardware, rather than through emulation (which had always had both performance and functionality limitations).

Soon after the first wave of Intel-based Macs began rolling out, Bemidji State started experimenting with a concept that would eventually lead to significant savings in both support and cost: replacing mixed hardware in its labs with Apple systems that could run Mac OS X, Windows, and Linux.

It was a fairly risky proposition to begin with. Not only was the hardware new, but the proposition was, by all accounts, unique on this scale in higher education. Furthermore, the technology used for the effort--Apple's Boot Camp--was, at the time, still in beta.

(Boot Camp, for those of you who are unaware, is Apple's software solution that allows users to create multiple bootable partitions on Apple machines capable of running Windows and Linux natively. Once the partitions are created, normally users just hold down the Option key at startup and select which OS they want to boot into. Boot Camp had been in beta until Apple finally shipped Mac OS X 10.5 Leopard in October. It's now full-release software.)

Said Brian Allen, director of technical support for Bemidji State University, "When the Intel Macs came out, we had so many labs on campus with both Windows and Mac, and they were just growing and growing ... out of control, and we all kind of saw this as a cool opportunity." Allen is one of a triumvirate of IT directors at Bemidji State, with dominion over tech support and the help desk.

Lab Tests
Once the idea came up, he and others began doing some testing, getting a machine up and running and trying it out with various pieces of software--including high-end 3D and engineering apps running in the Windows environment--to try to spot any kinks.

It passed the test, and, by the start of the following fall semester, he had the university's "SuperLab" up and running with the dual-boot systems. The SuperLab is a carry-over lab used when the department computer labs shut down. It's a sort of catch-all setting in which students and faculty can work on any software application taught on the campus. Now that Leopard is out, he's also upgraded those systems to the latest Mac OS.


Students in BSU's SuperLab work in the Windows operating environment on Apple iMacs. Photo by John Swartz, Bemidji State University.

The initiative has also been expanded to include four other labs on the campus, which are now running dual-boot systems with Mac OS X and Windows or triple-boot systems with Mac OS X, Windows, and SUSE Linux, depending on the lab. These include one computer science lab and three labs in the university's Technological Studies building, which includes video editing bays (Final Cut Pro and Premiere Pro), digital audio workstations (Avid/Digidesign Pro Tools and Apple Logic Pro), and animation stations (primarily Autodesk 3ds Max).

"It's a phenomenal return on investment for time and money as well from that," Allen said.

Migration of other labs to a unified hardware configuration is "on the horizon," he said.

Support and Cost Savings
There are several advantages to this approach, according to Allen. The first, of course, is in the area of support. Not only is there only one hardware platform to maintain (as all the labs are using 20-inch dual-core iMacs), but there are fewer problems being reported.

Second is the availability of workstations to students and faculty. The machines in the lab are used for a variety of purposes. Where previously the labs were divided in terms of Mac and WIndows systems, now all machines are equipped with both, so there's no longer the problem Allen used to face of turning away people who needed to use one system or the other when all of those particular machines were taken. (Some users, for example, need Final Cut Pro, a Mac-only application; some need Premiere Pro, which was until fairly recently Windows-only; and some need lab access to Windows-only applications like 3ds Max or Autodesk's AutoCAD.)

Third, and not the least significant, is the cost savings. With systems running multiple OSes, fewer machines are needed. And with software licensing structures the way they are, the university is also saving in that area, requiring a single license for a single machine, rather than two licenses for two machines. (That's not the case with virtualization solutions that allow multiple OSes to be run simultaneously.)

To quantify the cost savings, Brian Allen said he projects a savings in hardware of about $2 million over the first three years. Savings in the next hardware refresh cycle alone will amount to about $800,000. The savings on software licenses will also be significant--maybe as much as $400 per install for dual-platform software packages.

Allen, who said that he had never so much as laid hands on a Mac prior to joining on at Bemidji State, told us that there have been no significant problems reported since the initiative was launched.

For the ease of users and to enable triple-booting with Linux, the university is using rEFIt, an open-source solution for EFI-based machines, which include Intel-based Macs. The utility provides a pre-boot menu, allowing users to select an OS at startup time without having to hold down a key to call up a list of options, as is the case when using Boot Camp alone.

The Green Effect
There's one final advantage to Bemidji's approach, Allen said, and that's in the area of ecology.

"There's the green effect as well. We're being able to reduce the number of machines, so there a cause and effect for the environment ... as we don't have to have that many environmental issues with all of these machines."

In total, Allen said, the university will be able to cut the number of machines on campus just about in half while at the same time making more machines available to students consistently.

Expanding the Initiative
Beyond the laboratory settings on campus, the university is also in the process now of piloting a faculty laptop program. Taking a similar approach to the lab initiative, Allen said the university has passed out 23 MacBook Pro laptops to faculty members, representing a cross section of faculty across multiple departments, most of whom primarily use Windows.

"We wanted to hit the heavy Windows users," Allen said. "They're the ones who have to come to us and tell us if it's not going to work. They're the ones we're trying to convince that this is going to work."

The split among Bemidji State faculty is presently about 60/40 in favor of Windows. And, as with desktops and workstations, there are tech support issues involved.

"So being able to reduce and eliminate," Allen said, "and consolidate on one hardware platform is an essential thing for our technicians and a significant savings in time and effort."

It's too early to say whether that program will be rolled out fully. Faculty members have received the laptops and will provide feedback following the winter break. Purchasing decisions will be made over the following spring break.

"If it were just up to me," Allen said, "I'd say we'd be able to do it now. But we're including everyone. We really want to see [whether it's] going to work. For me, in the labs, it works fine. We can put all dual-boot machines in the labs, and there will not be a problem. The faculty, on the other hand, that's going to be a harder sell."

There have been no major guffaws for the faculty members to date. There was one case where a faculty member required a dial-up modem, so Allen had to find a USB-based modem that would work under Windows on the Apple hardware. The first solution tried was Apple's USB modem; but that, at the time, wouldn't work properly. So a third-party solution was found, and now things are working as expected. "Now he's happy, and he can use his dialup on both platforms, and everything's fine," Allen said.

The pilot program began about a month ago, and some faculty have had their systems for only a couple weeks.

We'll bring you updates once decisions are made on whether to ramp up the faculty laptop program.

Beyond BSU
Brian Allen, for his part, has taken the dual-boot initiative to heart and converted his own home to a Mac environment. And he's helping to spread the knowledge he's picked up through this experience to other campuses as well. Three Minnesota universities and colleges came to BSU for training

"We have some campuses across the state now that are implementing smaller labs running the dual boot," he said. "A lot of people are starting to take notice."

He said that the process has taken a lot of work to pull off--something untried on a university campus scale--but the rewards will more than pay off for the effort. And it wasn't all work, after all. "It's been a phenomenal thing. It's been a lot of fun, actually."

Allen, along with staff members, will also be presenting their work at the SALT (Society of Applied Learning and Technology) Conference in February in Orlando, FL. He can be reached at BAllen@bemidjistate.edu.

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