Oct 26 2015

Bridging the Digital Divide Through Smart Modernization

By taking risks, Columbus State Community College transformed itself into a modern campus.

At Columbus State Community College in Ohio, many students are working parents who juggle job and family responsibilities.

To excel academically, those students (and the faculty who teach them) needed easy options for accessing software, ranging from basic office applications to high-end graphics technology. Over the past five years, the college has achieved its vision of bridging that digital divide.

Using a combination of a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), server virtualization, thin client deployment and the installation of NVIDIA graphics accelerator cards, Columbus State delivers virtual desktops that support high-end graphics applications. Students can access their college desktops and all the tools they need, whether on campus, at home or at a local public library.

Here are some best practices the team discovered along the way.

Take Some Risks to Embrace Modernization

Columbus State was on the bleeding edge of VDI deployments five years ago when it first implemented the technology at its Delaware County campus. According to Carol Thomas, vice president of IT, the college’s willingness to take a leap of faith and deploy VDI helped it work through early issues so it could achieve its mission of delivering improved access to technology for its students and faculty.

VMware View’s VDI technology was a real catalyst in that it let the IT staff deliver desktop computing in a much more flexible way, Thomas says.

“For example, the public library in Columbus has a babysitting service so students with children can be sure they are safe while doing research and homework at the library,” she says. “And with a network partnership we have set up, students can now access their Columbus State desktops at the library.”


The number of back-end VMware virtual machines that Columbus State Community uses to support VDI

SOURCE: Columbus State Community College

The VDI capability also lets students at some of the local high schools attend Columbus State college courses from their schools, Thomas says.

Boost Storage Capacity

To take advantage of the new flexibility, Columbus State needed to have an infrastructure and storage to support it. Thomas says it was very important that the VDI software could integrate well with the college’s existing storage capabilities. The combination of VMware View working with existing storage, plus the planned ability to scale servers and storage as the number of virtual machines increased, reduced the load on IT staff.

Delivering access to the applications students need was in many ways more important than saving money. Deputy CIO Jim Beidler says students can now access more than 100 applications, including graphics-intensive applications such as computer-aided design, geographic information systems and Adobe Creative Cloud, using any device on the college’s two campuses or at local libraries.

To further support the engineering, scientific and collaborations apps, Columbus State deployed NVIDIA graphics accelerator cards in 35 servers over the past year, Beidler says. Once a virtual machine recognizes an accelerator card on the server, he says, it expands the ability of the hardware to process graphics.

“The cards are all deployed on the server side,” says Chris Scanlon, supervisor of systems administration. “That gives us the ability to deliver high performance on graphics-intensive applications without having to set up local computing environments at our various campuses. And an IT person doesn’t have to be onsite. Between VDI and installing the NVIDIA cards on the servers in our data center, we can manage everything remotely.”

Scale Up to Save Money

As Columbus State scaled up its technology infrastructure to meet student needs, it also saved money. Thomas says the initial cost ranged from about $800 to $850 per seat, which included servers, storage, endpoints and licensing. While those prices match the cost of a traditional desktop, the break-even point runs at about 300 seats for an initial implementation. Once the college topped 1,000 seats, it could centralize computing resources and purchase concurrent licenses, resulting in even greater savings. The college now supports about 2,000 thin clients from a variety of manufacturers.

By moving to thin clients as opposed to traditional notebooks or desktops, the college saved $3 million over five years. Not only are the thin clients less expensive, but they also need to be replaced less often — every eight to 10 years, as opposed to every four or five.

Thin clients also offer other advantages that lower overall expenses. Failure rates are significantly lower, reducing repair and replacement costs. Because all the back-end computing is virtualized, the college needs fewer physical servers and much less CPU memory, so it saves money on IT maintenance. Additional savings come from the very low heat signature and dramatically reduced energy consumption of thin clients.

Select the Right Partner

Although Columbus State had the vision, the team couldn’t have implemented it alone. Thomas says CDW•G delivered a list of appropriate technology products and provided access to technical experts with the know-how to make the deployment successful, focusing consistently on the college’s mission of delivering the access to high-end graphics applications.

The deployment has made a difference to both the student body and the faculty. “Over the past several years, we extended our technology reach substantially and did so in a way that connects with the educational mission of the college,” Thomas says.

Beidler adds that professors and instructors now spend more time teaching as opposed to working with the technology.

“In the past, one of our GIS instructors spent half the semester assisting her distance learning students in loading and configuring software on home systems,” he says. “Now, students can access a software image remotely that exactly matches the lab experience, and the instructor spends more time teaching and working with students on course materials.”

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