Desktop Virtualization: Enabling the Anywhere, Anytime College Experience

Overcoming challenges while meeting the changing technology needs in higher ed
By: | Issue: February, 2015
January 7, 2015

As technology advances and students remain on the cutting edge, colleges and universities have no choice but to keep up. That means ensuring that students can access the information they need, whenever they need it, from whatever device they choose. This creates an array of challenges for institutions, from increased volume of help desk calls, to providing a consistent user experience across devices and operating systems, to controlling access to sensitive information. In this web seminar, an industry expert and a higher ed technology leader discussed how the latest advancements in desktop virtualization technology can help to overcome many of these challenges for colleges and universities, and meet the changing needs of students and faculty.

Geoff Murase
Group Manager—Solutions Marketing
VMware, Inc.

In higher education, a lot more students are bringing a variety of mobile devices on campus. The trend continues to rise. Data from EDUCAUSE show that students, on average, bring about 3.5 devices to school. And it’s not just students— of course, faculty and staff have mobile devices as well.

This trend creates a lot of challenges. For example, when people bring their own devices to campus, they still expect to be able to access local printers. Also, it’s not guaranteed that their device can install specific applications they may need for a class, creating an inconsistent user experience. Ensuring security is another challenge, especially when working on special projects, or with the government. Supporting student work styles is another concern, making sure students can work when and how they prefer. Differences in computing power between these various devices are also a concern; some students come from disadvantaged backgrounds and don’t have the latest technology, creating an inequality in access to computing power on campus.

At VMware, we offer a solution to these many challenges with our VMware Digital Backpack solution. It enables students to take their coursework virtually anywhere. We support any device or operating system. And you can even access a virtual desktop through an HTML5-compatible browser. This levels the playing field and provide an equal experience to all students.

We offer location-aware printing—based on what access point a student is using, a print job can be redirected via the network to a printer that’s nearby. One of the major challenges we hear about from professors is having to wait until a semester break to install new applications—but with our Digital Backpack solution, you could install new applications overnight.

We also address security. With the virtual desktop, all of the data and applications are located in the data center. Nothing is ever downloaded to the client device. So if the device is lost or stolen, there are no worries about sensitive information getting into the wrong hands.

The VMware Digital Backpack solution also supports student work styles. By offering virtual desktops, students are able to access their computer lab applications at any time, anywhere, from any device. This frees them up to work at their own pace. One institution we work with asked us to come up with an application that schedules computer-lab time; but as we pointed out, you don’t need such an application because with virtual desktops, the lab is open 24 hours a day.

When it comes to supporting a variety of devices, all of the processing is done in the data center so everyone has the same user experience. Furthermore, for graphics intensive applications, we partnered with NVidia and AMD to offer 3D graphics acceleration from the data center. For example, say you are running a Chromebook from your dorm room—you are still able to run complex 3D graphics applications by using a virtual desktop, because all of the processing, all of the GPU acceleration, is happening remotely, so you don’t need local processing capabilities to get your work done.

William Allred
Associate Director, Technology Center
Sam M. Walton College of Business
University of Arkansas

To meet the challenges that we faced, we utilized VMware Horizon View. That let us grant remote access to a small subset of students, but it also centralized our patching.

It also eased software deployment. Historically, leading up to the first week of classes, we would have to deploy some software last-minute, which of course would mean reimaging and distributing the 40, 60, or 80GB image to all those hard drives. Now, we don’t have to do that. I update one gold image, we recompose, and I’ve deployed software to all of our desktops. It is extremely efficient.

We started running VMware in 2007. At this point, we are probably over 90 percent virtualized when it comes to servers. We began our desktop virtualization project in earnest in 2013. We moved on to a few of our labs initially, and at the beginning of the summer we finished our last lab. They are all using zero clients with a VDI backend.

In the labs, we use non-persistent linked clones. So students log in, their documents are mapped to a “My Documents” folder that lives outside of the virtual desktop. Students can do their work, then log out, and as a non-persistent linked clone, that system is reset back to the gold image. The next time someone logs in, they get a clean image. This has worked exceptionally well for us.

We have approximately 400 virtual desktops. We have about 365 zero clients, a lot of them Dell Wyse P25s. We also have a lot of the Samsung all-in-one zero clients, which basically is a monitor with a zero client built into it.

What initially attracted me to zero clients was sustainability. The Dell Wyse P25 consumes 1/25th the power of a traditional PC, so you can save a tremendous amount of electricity. Of course, you are shifting some of that to the data center, but you are not shifting 400 PC’s worth of power. For us this equates to about $40,000 a year in electricity savings, which is pretty significant.

They’re also quieter, so there’s less ambient noise in the room. We actually reduced the ambient noise in one room by 10 decibels. The faculty and students noticed—they didn’t have to shout anymore. And zero clients are cooler, as well, so that reduces your air conditioning costs.

Storage is important—in fact it is absolutely vital. We talked to several vendors and ended up with Tintri, which is a hybrid array and is VM-aware. Tintri gave us the IOPS and it gave us a window into how the VMs were performing. It enables us to do what we do now. We’ve seen up to 70,000 or 80,000 IOPS and the Tintri is not even breaking a sweat. We haven’t been able to break it, and that’s high praise from us because we can break just about anything.

We have seen tremendous time and cost savings. We typically spent about $1,355 for our each of our physical desktops. I can deliver a zero client for $500 less than that, including the licensing and all the associated costs and storage. As far as time savings go, in the past our labs were kind of a no-man’s-land. We would get the image up by the first week of classes, and then it would not get patched—there would be no changes until the end of the semester. We just didn’t have the manpower. Now they can be patched on “Patch Tuesday.” It doesn’t take long. Spin up the gold image, patch it, add new software, subtract software, do what you need to do, shut it down, snap it, deploy the new snap. You are done. And it can be very transparent to an end user—they may not even realize it happened.

We also have increased security. Everything is in the data center and we’re just updating views. We like to be open a little bit, so we allow for USB redirection and things like that, but we can lock down what we need to lock down.

To watch this web seminar in its entirety, please go to