Making the virtual a reality in higher ed

4 issues to consider in implementing virtual desktop infrastructure

Staff in the IT department at the University of South Carolina Upstate in Spartanburg used to say “no” a lot.

Meeting the computer needs of 6,000 students—many who work full-time and have families—and hundreds of faculty became an increasing challenge in the less-than-affluent community. Requests from faculty and the demand for technical assistance couldn’t be met due to limited staff and budget dollars. “We needed a better way to do things,” says Luke VanWingerden, director of IT client services.

Various approaches were explored, but eventually the university launched Spartan GreenSky, a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) that allows students and staff to access sophisticated software—such as MATLAB used by engineering and science students—on a laptop or mobile device via what appears to be a traditional desktop interface.

But the software actually resides and operates on a university server, not requiring any computing be done by the user’s device.

“The more we started looking at desktop virtualization, the more we saw it could save significant resources and not have to cut services or support for students,” says VanWingerden. “And we could offer additional services for students at no extra cost.”

A VDI can certainly lower expenses by reducing the need for actual computers and lab space on campus. Many computer labs have budget-friendly thin or zero clients—scaled-down, server-based desktop machines with minimal hardware and software. Yet, savings often must be reinvested in more powerful servers and support infrastructure.

A VDI can strengthen network security as IT administrators update software on the back end, rather than relying on individual users to do so. Machines also get wiped clean every time a user logs out, further increasing security as well as computer lab flexibility.

In the age of mobile connectivity and BYOD, desktop virtualization is also popular because of end-user access and experience. Nearly all VDI technology is compatible with any device. For an engineering student who’s a working, single parent and can’t get to a computer lab during normal hours, being able to use AutoCAD on an iPad at night and from their own living room is a big benefit.

“Whatever the device may be, as long as you have an HTML5 web browser, you can connect and have the same experience as somebody who has a $2,000 computer,” says VanWingerden.

But before a campus goes virtual, there are real issues to consider.

Implementation complications

Due to the somewhat abstract concept of desktop virtualization for the uninitiated, a detailed implementation plan is the first step toward successful adoption.

Any approach should start at the highest level, says Preston Winn, business development specialist for education at VMware, which specializes in virtualization software and services.

“If a school goes off without a specific, thorough plan, they might get buy-in from a few departments. But if they really want to create an end-user experience that’s branded—and that’s what we hear, that they want this environment where every student, faculty and staff can log in and have the same exact experience from wherever they are—then having school leadership on board really resonates.”

The savings in resources compared to the expansion of services often helps attain that support.

CIOs and system administrators are also wise to enlist students and faculty from the outset, promoting end-user benefits like flexibility, remote access and increased computing capability.

“If you go to a student and tell them that you’re rolling out desktop virtualization to save money and to make apps easier to manage, they’re going to say, ‘That does nothing for me—I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ ” says Nicole Nesrsta, lead solutions marketing manager for education at Citrix Systems, which provides virtualization software and services.

“When they become champions of desktop virtualization, they become more engaged in the success of the project,” Nesrsta adds.

Targeting faculty who are comfortable with technology as pilot subjects can help pave the way for the rest of campus. Resistant people can be told, “You’re last to be doing this, your students aren’t having the same experience as everyone else,” says VanWingerden. When providing IT support, staff should always explain the benefits of desktop virtualization to get newly arrived students and faculty on board.

A crowded marketplace

When setting up a VDI, there is no shortage of solutions and directions to research. Schools can store data in the cloud or on-campus, or take a hybrid approach.

Increased data storage capacity is vital. Whatever solution a school selects must be able to handle demand for IOPS (input/output operations per second). This is necessary for RAID (redundant array of independent disks) configuration, which constitutes the actual physical components used for virtualization technology storage.

In other words, a system should be adapted to handle the extra volume of processing that it will now be doing on the back end for user devices.

Any VDI should also be planned with room to expand.

USC Upstate’s VDI initiative started with hardware that was supposed to last seven years. But after three years, the school had outgrown it due to strong demand. “We scaled too quickly on our old pilot hardware and on the net app that we have, and we ran into issues,” says VanWingerden.

“But it had nothing to do with virtualization itself. It was the rate of growth—we weren’t keeping up with the hardware we needed to support it.” Users were saying, “Oh, it doesn’t work. I want off of it.”

His office has created a version of Cisco’s HyperFlex, a hyperconvergence infrastructure system that integrates computing, storage, networking and virtualization resources. The system, which combines Cisco products with a virtual storage area network and VMWare tools, cost less than a solution most vendors could provide, says VanWingerden.

Establishing a VDI from the ground up may not be within the capacity of most university IT departments, however. Vendors who specialize in virtualization can help plan and deliver a system.

“Traditionally, virtual desktops have been hard to set up and deploy, but technology has come a long way,” says Winn.

Many vendors now integrate virtual desktop functionality in the hardware for an out-of-the-box experience, with a network and computing all in one system. An IT admin can plug it in and start provisioning almost immediately. Winn estimates that 2,000 desktops can now be provisioned in about 20 minutes.

Licensing challenges

Software licensing in a VDI environment is no less challenging than it is with traditional desktop setups.

There’s been a paradigm shift in terms of licensing, say JP Peters, business relationship manager for IT at the University of Central Florida. The school operates a VDI known as UCF Apps (see “Virtualizing desktops vs. apps,” page 48).

Peters negotiates with software vendors to offer applications virtually in ways that do not breach existing agreements—and has found these vendors are often amenable to figuring out solutions that work for all.

Some products, such as SPSS Statistics from IBM, have virtualization options built in. “We actually pay for a virtualization rider on top of our campus agreement to allow it to run in UCF Apps,” says Peters. “We’re working with other vendors on pilots to do proof-of-concept, then going back with them to work on licenses to make them available to more students.”

VDI licensing can be more cost effective than traditional licensing because it doesn’t require institutions to estimate how many licenses they may need, which often results in overbuying. “You pay only for the licenses that you use,” says Winn.

High-end content accommodations

With more sophisticated applications and an increase in digital tools to supplement instruction, a VDI has to be able to handle high-definition video and 3D graphics.

At USC Upstate, Teradici graphic accelerator cards have been integrated to allow high-bandwidth content to run more smoothly. The cards offload much of that traffic and basically free up hardware for use in other areas, says VanWingerden.

VDI vendors such as VMware and Citrix have partnered with companies like Nvidia to help deliver high-def video and 3D graphics to virtual environments and multiple users.

“We want to be able to create a true PC-like experience on the end-user device, be that a tablet or a Chromebook,” says David Miles, director of marketing at NComputing, which provides virtualization services and thin client hardware. “That’s the goal of any desktop virtualization solution.”


Ray Bendici is UB’s special projects editor.


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