Desktop virtualization helped Jim Beachner, senior network engineer at Metropolitan Community College, distribute applications among computers.
Oct 08 2008

Get A Grip

Desktop virtualization gives IT a better handle on resources.

Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Mo., faced a dilemma familiar to a growing number of colleges and universities across the country: Its students needed both Microsoft Office 2003 and Office 2007, but the school’s computers weren’t powerful enough to house and run both applications on the same machine. So the IT staff had to offer Office 2003 in one lab and Office 2007 in another.

Sometimes the IT staff would see one lab in use, recalls Jim Beachner, the school’s senior network engineer, while another sat empty because it didn’t offer the version of Office students needed.

But those days are over at MCC, thanks to desktop virtualization technology. Now, MCC students can go to any computer on campus, log into a virtualized desktop environment and choose the desktop and version of Office they need, he says.

Beachner’s plight — and its solution — are not unique. Hindered by tight deadlines and even tighter budgets, many college IT administrators must juggle computer applications while monitoring security and maintaining access for their diverse users. To resolve these issues, universities around the country are turning to innovative desktop virtualization solutions to consolidate their IT infrastructure, according to Natalie Lambert, a senior analyst for Forrester Research.

Deploying applications and data in the data center instead of on hundreds of desktops and notebooks scattered around campus and beyond, the virtual environments improve application availability, streamline IT management and reduce hardware costs, Lambert says.

“Desktop virtualization is gaining traction with all industries that are highly regulated and deal with a lot of confidential information, including higher education,” she says.

Remote Testing

Metropolitan Community College currently deploys 100 virtual desktops across three servers.

MCC’s testing office employs desktop virtualization to aid its placement testing at area high schools. Instead of installing the test software on each computer in a high school lab, officials access the tests remotely via virtual desktops housed on the college’s main campus, says Beachner.

“The testing department wanted to create something [that would let them] go out and remotely test students for enrollment, and before virtualization, it was always at least a three-hour setup every time,” he says.

Virtual desktop applications offer more than simple flexibility. The technology also lets IT determine who gets what application and when. For instance, the college is considering desktop virtualization as a way to make an expensive application available to geography students. The application is currently installed in one computer lab at each of the school’s five campuses.

“The problem is, we’ve installed the geography application in a lab that is used for multiple classes, so if students go to class at 8 a.m. and want to do homework right after, they can’t because another class is in there,” Beachner says.

For the spring 2009 semester, the college hopes to be able to make the geography application available on virtual desktops, allowing students to go to any lab and access the software. “They just have to open a web browser and start a virtual session,” he explains.

To save money, the IT staff is considering virtualization for more of its desktops in the future. But replacing those desktops as they age adds to the cost. MCC must replace its desktops every two to five years, depending on how they are used. In English department labs, computers are good for up to five years because students need only word processing programs and Internet access. But desktops running high-performance applications such as AutoCAD must be replaced every two years.

Central Control, Standard Operations

The University of North Carolina at Charlotte deployed an architecture solution from Citrix called XenApp to ease IT complexity and cost while improving application availability and performance, says Bob Bair, a technology support specialist at the school. Now, instead of clients distributed across campus, the university serves dozens of applications remotely from its main data center, where they can be monitored, updated and secured by a consolidated team of administrators.

Users access the Citrix server environment from any workstation with an Internet connection — whether the system sits in an office, computer lab, dorm room or off-campus apartment. The 24x7 availability rendered static client desktops obsolete, allowing users to access secure applications anytime from anywhere on any system.

Mark Shropshire, who manages IT services and infrastructure for students at UNC Charlotte, accesses a room-scheduling solution on the fly when student and faculty groups track him down seeking an appointment. He logs in on his notebook remotely through a Citrix server and makes the reservation. Otherwise, he’d have to tell people to contact him later when he is at his desk.

The environment also enabled UNC Charlotte to standardize on Windows Office 2007 because every administrator has unlimited access to the suite — regardless of whether their workstation has the memory or storage capacity to support the latest version. With the Citrix server environment providing the processing power, employees can remotely access the 2007 versions of Word, PowerPoint and Excel from any machine.

Sensitive Treatment

Because of rising security concerns, Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Conn., pulled applications and sensitive data off its workstations and consolidated them in a central, secure data center, providing access to sensitive information without putting it at risk.

Wang Cheng, the school’s information security officer, consolidated applications and data to VMware ESX virtual servers in a secure network operations center on campus. Using Citrix Provisioning Server software, he centralized access to the school’s business applications and student data to just a few desktop images that he is able to monitor and update from a central management console. School administrators simply log in to the system through the web and, depending on need and permissions, get complete and secure access to any number of desktops populated with administrative applications for admissions, payroll, financial aid and the main student information system.

“We’ve managed to centralize many of our applications and all of our sensitive data in a secure network operations center on campus where they can be closely monitored, maintained, backed up and secured,” Cheng says. “That’s made us less vulnerable to data breaches and has allowed us to provide our administrative staff with secure, reliable access to confidential information anywhere with an Internet connection.”

Thin Is In

Thin client aids virtualization Desktop virtualization promises to cut hardware costs through IT consolidation and thin-client technology. Because servers — not the client systems — provide data processing and access to applications, users can work on scaled-down workstations that don’t require as much speed. These terminals are typically hundreds of dollars less than desktop systems and are much easier to manage. Multiply that by the hundreds or thousands of thin-client systems across a typical college campus, and the savings can add up.

The University of Chicago Medical Center recently replaced dozens of desktops that were up for license renewal at the teaching hospital with Wyse Technology thin clients. The terminals cost less than $300 per unit versus an average of $1,000 per desktop, immediately saving the school more than $10,000 in hardware costs. According to Ilir Zenku, director of information systems for the for the University of Chicago Physicians Group in the Biological Sciences Division, the applications run on VMware ESX virtual servers with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure and Microsoft Windows 2003 Terminal Server. Zenku is able to run up to 25 desktops or hundreds of terminal sessions on a single server. Users can also log on from outside the network through a separate Citrix server.

The university recently analyzed its return on investment for the desktop virtualization deployment, according to Zenku. Combining less expensive hardware, reduced IT maintenance and improved energy efficiency, the school calculated a cost savings of $100,000 in a single year — which means the solution paid for itself in the first six months.

Natalie Lambert, a senior analyst for Forrester Research, warns that not all deployments are as rich as the University of Chicago’s implementation. And Zenku says IT endured a steep learning curve.

“There are all sorts of hidden costs in the back end of virtual desktop deployments,” Lambert says, listing additional server, bandwidth, licensing and network-attached storage costs. “But once you jump over the high hurdles of implementation, the many benefits of desktop virtualization are huge.”