Virtualization taking root on campus


Virtualization saves colleges money while conserving resources.

Virtualization technology is taking hold in higher education, helping colleges reallocate existing resources to save space, time, energy, and money—while often extending the life of older computers.

Using virtualization, specialized software tricks a single desktop or server into thinking that it’s many systems simultaneously, each with its own independent operating system.

A single computer or server is able to project mirrored images of its operating system onto other platforms, but these platforms are independently capable of completing different tasks simultaneously. The virtualized environments look identical to the standard computer to which users are accustomed, and users are free to access applications and programs normally.

Implementing virtualization software on older computer terminals could save schools money and energy. In recent years, software companies have started to develop new tools to make adoption and integration easier for higher-education institutions.

There are now many virtualization solutions on the market, including Dell Wyse WSM, VMware View, Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac, and NComputing’s L-Series.

Immediate savings

A few years ago, the 5,000 students attending the State University of New York (SUNY) Orange Community College’s two physical campuses in Middletown or Newburgh, N.Y., or one of its several satellite locations were accustomed to computer glitches and having to wait for computer lab time.

Kenneth Kempsey, director of user support and operations at SUNY Orange, was used to hearing complaints from students and faculty members about the lack of dependable computing devices. When two computer labs at SUNY Orange’s Middleton campus required wholesale replacement of their eight-year-old PCs, Kempsey sought a solution that would be both dependable and affordable.

After considering several options, SUNY Orange opted to incorporate Dell Wyse virtualization software and installed 46 Wyse cloud PCs instead of buying 30 traditional PCs.

“Of all the suppliers we considered, Wyse had the best products and the best reputation,” said Kempsey. “And Wyse also offered the most turnkey option—we didn’t have to buy additional software to support virtualization.”

Dell Wyse WSM software lets students create individual profiles that contain only the content and programs they need. An engineering student can log onto a Dell Wyse PC, for instance, and programs that pertain only to his major appear. Later, a literature student can log onto the same Dell Wyse PC, and programs that relate to her major become available. What’s more, students get great performance, because there is no hard disk on the PC—and code is being executed locally on the Dell Wyse cloud PC.

“The main difference between WSM and other forms of virtualization that Dell Wyse also supports is [that] with WSM, … you get provided with the OS image and application mix on the end-point device itself,” said Dan O’Farrell, senior director of product marketing at Dell Wyse. “Windows 7 for example, plus whatever applications are good for the student.”

But as soon as a student logs off, everything is wiped clean.

“Different students from different departments can share the same desktop, and it acts like it belongs to them when they’re on it, but it can change,” he said.

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O’Farrell said he believes that WSM also helps schools embrace the “bring your own device” (BYOD) phenomenon.

Whether students are accessing their applications and content on their smart phones or tablets, content is protected because it’s centrally stored, he said. The actual desktop, applications, and folders safely reside in the local campus data center.

The Wyse cloud PCs freed up Kempsey’s time, and allowed him to focus on bigger issues.

“Managing 20 Wyse cloud PCs takes the same amount of IT time as managing one traditional PC,” said Kempsey. “As we learn more about the functionality of Wyse devices, we’re taking just minutes to complete some administrative tasks that used to take hours. Once we set up the server, it took us six hours to take down the PCs, and about three hours to put all the Wyse cloud PCs in place—technicians plugged them in and walked away.”

SUNY Orange students and faculty report stronger performance and reliability with WSM, in addition to lower energy costs—and an immediate $400 savings for each PC replaced by a Wyse cloud PC.

“More and more universities are moving toward virtualization,” said O’Farrell. “We don’t think that every university will go completely virtual overnight, but we think cloud client computing can benefit every university in one way or another.”

Thinking creatively

The Ohio State University has been an avid user of VMware software since 2003 after Tim Smith, the university’s director of infrastructure and operations for the college of arts and sciences, decided to give it a whirl.

VMware vSphere server virtualization product virtualizes the server hardware, allowing for greater flexibility in server workload deployments.

Smith emphasized the large amount of time his staff saves with VMware virtualization. Typically, he said, it takes about two to three weeks to procure and provision a physical server. In contrast, it only takes 10 to 15 minutes to set up one through VMware.

“It eases the management,” Smith said. “By using a virtual machine, we’re not in pressing buttons. You can add RAM to it, you can add more hardware to it if you need more, but it makes the infrastructure better.”

He added: “We have been very happy with [the software]. It has worked very well for us, and our state has negotiated good pricing. Without having to purchase more hardware, [VMware] allows us to be more flexible and meet the needs of our faculty and staff.”

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Faculty particularly appreciated that VMware software allowed them to extend the life of older PCs, and avoid purchasing costly new PCs and individual software and applications for each.

“It gives us the ability to have new servers without even thinking about the hardware costs,” said Smith. “It allows my staff to think more creatively.”

Perhaps above all else, Smith and his IT team value the free time they have thanks to VMware. Smith said he looks forward to future VMware innovations that will keep his institution at the forefront of technology use.

As higher education becomes increasingly saturated in technology, it is imperative that colleges understand their options and stay ahead of the curve, said Tisa Murdock, group manager for End-User Computing Vertical Solutions at VMWare. And as college budgets are slashed nationwide, IT resources tend to suffer.

“There is an emphasis in the classroom to provide more challenge-based and active learning,” said Murdock. “Education paradigms are shifting to include online learning, hybrid learning, and collaborative models. By moving to a virtual desktop solution, you can offer students access to the latest applications and state-of-the-art training methods” in a more cost-effective manner.

Shrinking resources are forcing campus leaders to be creative with the way they allocate funding.

“Rising costs and increased competition are driving change across academic institutions, which now are seeking ways to improve service deliveries,” said Murdock.

Cross-platform computing

Several years ago, the University of Washington’s largest computer lab ran 25 percent Macs and 75 percent PCs, and students were forced to use whatever machines were available. Budget constraints and computer wait times led decision makers to seek a solution that would give students better access to resources.

To ensure that students could access any software programs on whatever platform or system they needed, the Student Technology Fee Committee—a group of students who decide how to allocate student technology fees—decided to fund the purchase of Parallels Desktop for Mac Enterprise Edition.

“All the feedback that we’ve gotten [on Parallels] has been stellar,” said Jacob A. Morris, manager of Learning Technologies for UW Information Technology. “I think the first benefit is flexibility for students, the ability for students to sit down at a machine and be able to make choices.”

Steven W. Bangs, Systems manager in Learning Technologies for UW Information Technology, agreed. “It comes down to the ever-shrinking availability of resources. The Student Technology Fee Committee is always searching for better returns on their investment. Parallels allows us to increase the return on investment, and we’re no longer stuck on one OS on one platform. We can maximize the shrinking base of the sale of hardware, and that addresses the BYOD [challenges] that we’re all facing. This is one elegant way of dealing with new realities.”

The Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac program allows Windows applications to run on a Mac OS X computer simultaneously, offering users the freedom to enjoy the unique benefits of both programs. They can keep all of their stored information in one place without compromising operational speed or having to reboot.

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“It’s a win-win-win on every front: for universities, for students, and for teachers, because now they have the tools they need to be able to accomplish anything, successfully engage and work with anyone wherever they are,” said John Uppendahl, senior director of global communications at Parallels. “It’s not the best of both worlds; it’s the best of all worlds.”

With Parallels Desktop 8 for Mac, Uppendahl believes that students and teachers gain invaluable exposure to the best programs in a single source, and he said this familiarization will benefit them in an increasingly tech-saturated job market. Similarly, IT professionals can consolidate resources, and colleges will save money as a result.

“The bottom line is, it’s simple for IT professionals; they get the control they need to comply and update [machines], they save time and money by creating one or a few different golden masters of virtual machines—Windows 8 or XP—and push these out to some or all of the Macs without having to personally install each one,” Uppendahl said.

“You basically become OS agnostic. Students moving into the world have a much broader base and are much more adaptable. [Their] experience is so wide that it’s easier to adopt something new,” said Kurt Schmucker, senior product manager at Parallels.

Individual Desktop 8 for Mac users can invest in Parallels Mobile, a $5 application purchased through Apple iTunes that allows them to access the same Desktop 8 for Mac environment from an iPhone or iPad.

Less heat and energy, more savings

A few years ago, Pepperdine University recognized that its computers needed an update. The IT department was under tight budget restrictions, and ultimately decided to invest in NComputing’s L-series to address their problem.

“We set up 28 NComputing L-series with flat screens in the language lab connected to three dedicated PCs,” said Prakash Sharma, Pepperdine’s IT manager for graduate campus support. “NComputing’s performance is excellent, and we haven’t had any problems. We also mounted the L-series to the back of the new flat-screen monitors in the lab. That made a huge difference in available space for students’ books and papers.”

Pepperdine reported huge savings on hardware and energy.

“If we had outfitted the lab with PCs, the hardware costs [alone] would have been $24,800,” said Thomas Hoover, director of instructional technology support. “With NComputing, we did the entire deployment for just $7,100. That’s an incredible savings.”

Since most PC users use approximately 5% of a computer’s total power, NComputing’s L-series virtual desktop allow users to capitalize on a single computer’s unused space by dividing access to up to 30 other users. The outsourced virtual environments resemble the host computer, and users can access the same programs and applications.

“When you’re looking at providing computing to a whole student body, this notion of having to buy a separate PC for every user can be accomplished by taking one PC or server, putting our vSpace software on it, and installing one set of operating systems and one instance of all applications,” said Mike Pagani, senior director of product marketing in computing at NComputing. “It’s like everybody is eating a slice of a jumbo cheese pizza, as opposed to VDI [where] it’s a lot more complicated where everyone wants their own personal pan pizza.”

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Through NComputing’s L-series, colleges can extend the lives of old PCs. Soft clients allow users to access the remote server’s information from their mobile or handheld devices, offering users a more seamless transition to virtualization access. Pagani testified that the L-series can address the growing BYOD problem for colleges.

“These students in higher ed have all got a decent laptop, or things that they’re already familiar with,” said Pagani. “Whatever the educator is providing, [the students] can now access with their personal equipment and software. When you’re buying a soft client, you’re not paying for what goes on, you’re paying for a seat on the server.”

A typical PC emits around 150 watts, while an L-series virtual desktop that is ran on a thin client emits only 5 watts per PC. The lack of moveable parts and the low wattage equates to lower heating costs and less noise.

“All you have [are these] quiet, cool, very powerful workspaces, so it’s much cleaner and it’s much more scalable [and] you can get a lot more people in the same area,” said Pagani.

IT administrators can manage the L-series remotely through a browser-based interspace. Pagani believes that this easily accessible approach will be particularly attractive to universities with multiple campuses, because IT administrators can “treat them all as an extended network.”