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Today's college campuses are run more than ever like large corporations. That means everyone associated with the university – students, faculty and administrators – expects top-notch computing resources and fast-paced response. For many institutions, the logical solution to these requirements is desktop virtualization, which provides on-demand customized desktops and reduces cost and IT management headaches.
For Arkansas Tech University, home to nearly 9,000 students on two campuses, the move toward desktop computing began about a year ago. The campus houses about 700 lab computers across campus, and keeping them updated and ready for each semester was taking a toll on the IT staff and its resources.
“Most of our labs serve a variety of departments, all with different needs,” says Steve Milligan, Arkansas Tech's director of academic computing and technology. “For example, there are times when instructors call us to install software in a lab for classes that take place the next day, and we just didn't have the time to get an image updated and pushed out for the class. There were a lot of issues like these that we thought virtualization could handle.”
About a year ago, following a server virtualization project, Milligan's team began implementing VMWare Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). So far, the team has outfitted each of three English labs with 24 Wyse V10L thin clients and one nursing lab with 40 Wyse thin clients.
$2 billion: Size of the desktop virtualization market by 2011.
Eventually, Milligan says he would like to be able to accommodate any request an instructor makes. “If a computer science class is scheduled in a lab in the morning and a business class in the afternoon, we want to be able to have an image for each class that we can quickly switch,” he says. “We even want to get to the point where we can offer different operating systems depending on the need.”
Interest in desktop virtualization is picking up in all sectors but is being used most aggressively in areas where IT staff can standardize on a single desktop that will clean-boot each time a user signs on, says Chris Wolf, a senior analyst at Burton Group. For knowledge workers who need to run more complex applications, it's still possible to virtualize the desktop, but it takes more image management expertise by the IT staff, he adds.
In higher-education environments, desktop virtualization can help schools with online course offerings, which most colleges and universities offer today, Wolf says.
“Trying to support end users is always a challenge, and this gives them an easy way to deploy applications, so students taking specific courses have their standard environment,” he says. IT doesn't have to worry about supporting user PCs or what application they've installed.
That's another route Arkansas Tech is taking. Milligan's team tested VMware View 4 for five online users during the fall semester. Students log in to the VMware web portal to access their desktops.
Down the Road
Not all colleges and universities have taken the plunge, but more may be willing to roll out desktop virtualization as the technology matures. There are improvements on the way, says Wolf, that will likely cause desktop virtualization adoption to explode.
Chief among these enhancements is the client hypervisor, which increases flexibility and security while reducing back-end infrastructure. With this technology, users will be able to take their virtual desktops on the road and sync back to the organization's data center, creating something Wolf calls device-agnostic computing. Both VMware and Citrix are expected to ship client hypervisor solutions this year.
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“It will run locally on the user's endpoint system instead of consuming server resources in the data center,” Wolf explains. “You get the management benefits of desktop virtualization but you get a scaled-out approach to architecture.”
Those are the types of advances the IT staff at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, are waiting for. “We're in the middle of a $2 million server and storage virtualization project, but we haven't put desktop virtualization on the list yet,” says Debra Allison, the university's interim vice president for information technology. “It's continuing to mature, and we think we'll implement it at some point.”
Allison sees value in desktop virtualization for many areas. She says the first implementation will probably be in labs, followed by administrative computers.
“We have a lot of staff who don't have the need to manage their own desktops, like administrative assistants and even departments like the Registrar,” Allison says. “At this point we're just watching and waiting, but we'll get there at some point.”
Deployment Do's and Don'ts
Desktop virtualization comes with myriad benefits, but as with all new technologies and processes, it takes time. Heed this advice:
- Do prepare users for the change. Many believe they will have less control, which creates resistance. Instead, accentuate the positive by explaining the increased flexibility they will gain. For example, they will be able to access their desktop from any location within the building.
- Don't dive in head first. Deploy slowly, and make sure you test the product with all applications before deployment. Deploy department by department instead of all at once.
- Do include representatives from each department to create the most usable, user-accepted desktop.
- Don't expect to implement desktop virtualization at every level of the organization; it's particularly well-suited to standardized tasks and situations, and somewhat less suited to users with more customized needs.