In what is believed to be an unprecedented collaboration among universities, systems administrators from four West Coast colleges teamed up to test, select and deploy a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) system.
The participants say having the support of their school leaders, a short timeline and a narrow focus made the unusual collaboration work.
CIOs from Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles; the University of San Francisco (USF); Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif.; and Gonzaga University in Spokane, Wash. — all members of the Association of Jesuit Colleges and Universities — thought it would be beneficial to pool their expertise on a common project.
The four colleges have important elements in common. Each school has a student body of fewer than 9,000 students, and all use the same financial and learning management systems, as well as Microsoft's Active Directory for authentication. After realizing that they all were about to deploy client virtualization, they decided to work together to select a common VDI solution.
By deploying VDI, the colleges hoped to save desktop costs for labs, kiosks and student units, as well as back-end administration expenses. In most cases, thin clients would replace end-of-life desktops. From an end-user perspective, the colleges wanted students to have access to their virtual desktops from anywhere — the computer lab, their dormitory or even a mobile device. Virtualization also promised more functionality and easier maintenance for the IT staff.
"You create one machine and then clone it off," says Jeff Solomon, systems administrator at Loyola Marymount University, describing some of the management benefits of VDI.
"If there's an update for Microsoft Office, instead of patching them all, you just patch the one, and it will refresh the clones when you tell it to," he explains. "There's only one machine that you are concerned with. It makes management and administration a lot easier."
The group of systems administrators and a project manager provided by USF met weekly via telephone from December 2010 to March 2011. Each week, members were assigned tasks that they would report back on to the group. They also had conference calls with manufacturers and an analyst so they could ask questions and learn about products.
What made the experience truly exceptional was the expertise that each participant brought to the group.
"Someone may have been good at storage, and another was really interested in how virtualization was going to affect the network," Solomon says. "And another was really into the virtualization techniques. So it kind of formed accidentally, but positively, a super team."
Although the main objective was to select a VDI solution, the chance to network with peers and share stories of success and failure was far more beneficial.
"It was really exciting to talk with people at my level at other universities and find out what they were doing in their environment. It wasn't just a VDI conversation," says Roger Cummings, Unix administrator at Gonzaga University.
Never before had these systems administrators networked to such an extent with their peers. And once they had, there was a general consensus that the relationships would continue.
"Going forward, we can continue communicating when we build our network," says Michael Ong, director of enterprise system infrastructure at USF.
Michael Cox, senior systems administrator at Santa Clara University, agrees that the collaboration was a very positive experience. "I got to meet peers, hear about their environments and see their typical environment," he says. "And it seems the other admins also experience the same kinds of issues I see at my campus."
Prior to the collaboration, USF had already done some research into VDI and had narrowed its selection to Citrix XenDesktop and VMware View. The group's purpose was to decide which of the two products was worth recommending to their respective universities.
After a few months of testing, the project culminated in a weeklong meeting on the campus at USF. The university's consultants had deployed both solutions, so that everyone could test the deployments together.
In the end, the majority of the group chose Citrix XenDesktop as the preferred solution.
Those who chose Citrix over VMware at the time said the product was better at desktop presentation and was compatible with a greater number of platforms, including tablets. The new version of VMware View reportedly closes some of those gaps.
USF deployed Citrix XenDesktop in one computer lab and had plans to deploy in a second lab in January. Santa Clara and Gonzaga universities both planned pilot deployments, but had to stop because of resource constraints. Loyola Marymount University deployed VMware View as a pilot in one computer lab. Unlike his colleagues in the group, Solomon preferred VMware View because the administrative and management tools were easier for his busy IT department to use.
In the future, the schools may choose to deploy VDI together. "It still might happen. Maybe we would pool our resources and have it hosted in the cloud," Solomon says. "The idea was to see how we worked together and how far we could take it."