You are here


Shrinking the Desktop

Virtualization is moving from the server room to the desktop
University Business, April 2011
The virtual desktop environment at Scottsdale Community College is easier for IT staff to manage?as well as easier for students, faculty, and staff to access their data from on campus or anywhere they have an internet connection.

Caught up in cloud fever, campus IT leaders across the nation have virtualized their server rooms. Having fewer servers didn't make the world come to an end; in fact, just the opposite happened. Staffers have more time to work on critical tasks and energy bills have gone down since IT departments aren't cooling massive data centers anymore.

Since starting the migration to a virtual environment in 2007, West Texas A&M University has saved an estimated $1.2 million, says CIO James Webb. That taste of success has given IT departments the urge to pare down and virtualize other technology. "I see a world where everything that can will be automated and put online," says Jorge Mata, chief information officer of the Los Angeles Community College district. The logical next step is to essentially hit the computer labs and desktops around campus with a shrink ray and convert them to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). "The whole reasoning behind moving to the desktop is to get the same benefits you get from server virtualization," says Dana Loof, vice president of marketing for Pano Logic, a vendor in this space.

Here are some things to think about before disposing of those old CPUs in an environmentally responsible way.

Managing, upgrading, and securing traditional computers is a very inefficient proposition, points out Dustin Fennell, vice president and CIO of Scottsdale Community College (Ariz.). "When you look at the traditional environment, if you refreshed a unit, it only benefited the person at the unit, it didn't extend technology to a new area, it didn't help the budget. It just replaced the 'milk carton' that would expire again in a few years."

Budget concerns, a desire to be more efficient, and the need to extend technology to nontraditional students who don't have time to come to campus to visit the computer lab all contributed to Fennel starting a migration to a virtual environment in 2008.

"Desktop virtualization is a lot like satellite TV," explains Dave Podwojski, director of education for Citrix, Scottsdale's virtual computing vendor. "The [satellite provider] functions as the content aggregator. They build a lineup of programs and categorize them. But, basically, if you substitute the word 'program' for 'application', then you have a foundation for thinking about desktop virtualization."

The master, or "golden image," of the virtual desktop resides in the data center. Users access their data and applications over the network via a desktop, thin client, smartphone, or other computing device. Since access is over the network, the system is device agnostic, greatly reducing the need for the IT department to support different brands and types of devices.

Patches and upgrades are also easier. "We apply [an update] to a virtual machine, test it, then that machine is the new golden image. As soon as users access the application they get the new version. Users who were logged in continue using the current version until they log out," says Fennel. Since the changes are done in the data center, there is no need for IT staff to travel all over campus.

Considering virtual solutions have been around for several years and that they bring in so many benefits, why aren't more people jumping on board?

Cost, complexity, and scalability have been the main hurdles, say industry experts. But vendors are all working to address the issues. Much of the upfront costs are the new servers to support the solution; if already in place, it is an easy jump to the desktop, and some of the expense will be offset by savings down the road.

While the technology has become less complex, especially with some solutions verging on plug-and-play, campuses still need careful architecture if they are going to grow the network, advises Loof. In most cases, IT departments have the necessary knowledge in-house, but vendors or their partners can also assist.

Concordia University Texas made the jump to Pano Logic when it opened a new campus two and a half years ago. IT Manager Joel Rahn shares that funds were requested on July 1 and the university had a virtual computer lab up and running by August 15. "It was all done on-site and in-house," he says. "That included a VMware backbone, setting up the servers, testing the virtualization, and getting the virtual desktops up and running." To add to the excitement, the institution was simultaneously rolling out Blackboard on the new network.

Referring to their Citrix platform, Fennel likes to say, "We went from zero to Xen in six months."

"The technology is really robust now. People who had initial bad experiences with virtualization weren't wrong; there were major problems with the early technology," says Mata. "But I think the vast majority of those issues have been addressed. All the technologies are good; it's a matter of which one will add value for your organization. Pick one, standardize, and move forward."

Another hurdle can be campus silos, cautions Renee Patton, the U.S. public sector director of education for Cisco. Virtualization requires departments across campus to work together and leverage resources.

Software licensing is another wet blanket. Many third party providers don't have licensing for the virtual format, says Fennel. "This technology allows us to reduce the number of licenses we purchase and that is a challenge for them," although most organizations have worked with him to find a solution.

"Many of the manufacturers are starting to understand virtualization and modifying their licenses to deal with technology that is a reality today," confirms Podwojski. "It's become a clear direction from the industry and schools that this is the way to go because it saves money and provides increased functionality across the university spectrum." When in doubt, one can always ask the software provider how its product will work in a virtual environment.

Because going virtual is both a big investment and a big change, a phased rollout is a good way to get campus constituents accustomed to the idea. Webb found that virtual servers and virtual environments in academic departments around the WTAMU campus allowed end users and administrators to become familiar with the technology and its benefits, which helped pave the way for virtual desktops.

A phased deployment also gives IT staff time to become familiar with the technology, says Fadi Albatal, vice president of product marketing for FalconStor, a provider of digital data backup and storage that supports a virtual solution. He suggests selecting power users who will initially put the system through its paces.

"Instead of just thinking this is something for the masses, we're eating our own dog food," says John Miller, director, technology infrastructure and network services at Franklin University (Ohio). "Several folks in IT leadership have been using VDI for our sole desktop for awhile to make sure it's something that would be good for our users." Several users outside IT and a number of students are also involved in the pilot. Switching to a virtual desktop infrastructure is expected to be cost neutral, says Miller, who anticipates the main benefits to be easier management for the IT staff and more flexibility for end users. Franklin is an institution with a large distance learning population, and he is looking forward to providing students with access to a virtual desktop rather than mailing out CDs of required course software.

A gradual rollout does have its downside. "There is a while where you are supporting both types of systems and it will create extra work for your team," cautions Mata. "That's an important point; you have to keep your eye on the goal."

Communication is a key part of any technology change, but even constituents who balk will be won over when a system works. "We found our end users didn't care about the desktops," says Fennel. "They just wanted access to the applications."

Along with virtual servers in the data center, a stable network is a key ingredient of VDI. "If the network isn't robust, virtualization efforts won't work," warns Mata. "My virtualization started with making sure I had a scalable storage environment and a flexible network."

Since many VDI solutions strip all operating systems from the unit on the desk, the network uptime becomes even more critical. "Before, if the wire was offline, you could still do some things, but now you can't do anything," Mata says. "I made sure our network was very resilient. If it isn't, you'll have a nightmare. Your traditional recovery times are not adequate in a virtual environment."

The need for a strong network backbone can stop some virtualization efforts before they start. Rahn says Concordia campus leaders had confidence in the virtual solutions on the market, but knew the on-campus network couldn't keep up. The move to a new campus, with a new network, reopened the door. "The hardware costs made sense, but the throughput and bandwidth needed would have overloaded our network. The new campus put the backroom stuff in place. We have a new server room and a new pipe."

"Getting the network and the data center right is the key to an effective and successful virtual desktop infrastructure," agrees Webb from WTAMU. "Our university has been building up these areas for the past few years. Having a scalable and flexible network, storage area network, and server infrastructure are absolutely essential. The complexity involved in the data center and with the network are much different than desktop environments and have to be done right for a successful VDI launch."

Another important step is assessing the campus workload throughout the day and provisioning the network to manage those input/output spikes, says FalconStor's Albatal. "You can't really use results from the corporate world because the users on a campus are completely different; things are more dynamic because people don't come in at 9 and leave at 5."

Once the VDI is in place, an IT department can expect to enjoy the benefits of not needing to increase staff as the network grows and better use of staff resources?not to mention no more running around campus to do upgrades and patches.

Virtual desktops get the IT department out of the device management business because the solutions will work with almost any device, says Raj Mallempati, director of product marketing for enterprise desktop solutions at VMware. "In the traditional PC world, you would have to decide what devices [you] are going to support, or you can allow any device, but security might be compromised."

In a virtual desktop environment, operating systems, service packs, and applications can be centrally managed, thereby reducing operational requirements and freeing up support staff to perform other, more critical tasks, says Webb. "The time to deliver a desktop, or a server, has gone from one month to one day or less."

With a VDI, software upgrades and other maintenance is done by updating the golden image in the data center then pushing that new version out across the network. Since there's no longer a need to visit every unit individually, the IT staff saves considerably in travel time and transportation costs. It was a major selling point for Mata at LACC who inherited a tangle of systems. At the time, the campus consisted of one nine-story building, so it was a simple matter to visit the source of a trouble ticket. But when a new building was acquired 10 miles away, which could be at least a 45-minute drive in LA traffic, walking over to solve a problem was no longer an option.

In addition to saving wear and tear on IT staff cars, the virtual environment has made the help desk more efficient. Remote access allows IT staff to see what is happening and even see issues before the user does. It is also easier to monitor the network and systems since everything is contained on a few servers.

"With VMware, we lock down the hard drive so it's like a new computer every time you turn it on," says Rahn, adding that his small staff can be more responsive now. "Removing viruses is easy; you just restart the computer."

Users at SCC no longer have to deal with a cluttered desktop with an overwhelming number of applications, says Fennel. "They log in with a name and password, the system authenticates them, then they are presented with resources based on their role with the college." And security updates are a snap. "We have 2,100 devices, but we don't have to visit each one. We can just apply it to the golden image and we're done," Fennel says.

In addition to making it easier to perform virus scans and security patches, VDI improves physical security, as well. "We could secure the data itself. If someone walked out with a desktop before, there would be security issues. But now, with virtualization, the data is behind walls in a secure area," says Rahn.

"One word shouts out at you: 'Freedom.' The freedom to use what I want, when I want it, as long as I have internet access," says Citrix's Podwojski. Since the desktop environment is running from the server rather than the local hard drive, users will have a similar experience regardless of being on an old or new desktop, Mac, or PC. They can start working at one station, log off, then log in at a different station and pick up where they left off.

Students benefit from having access to specialized software without having to purchase it themselves, as well as mobility. "Students can be in their dorm and access the applications they need to use," points out Mallempati of VMware.

"I think a really exciting part is the dynamic allocation of resources," says Cisco's Patton. "Say a researcher gets funding. The first thing they might do is start a data center. They run the project in a silo, then abandon the resources. When you look at virtualization, IT becomes the service provider. They can allocate servers to the project, then reclaim them when it's done."

Rapid deployment allows IT to better respond to evolving user needs, agrees Webb. "Users have different needs at different times. ... IT now has the ability to automatically provision additional resources to users. For example, we can give a user an additional processor or more memory in near real time."

At The University of Arizona, administrators in Residential Life IT created a "classroom-in-a-box" using clients and virtualization software from Wyse Technology. Twelve thin clients are mounted on the back of terminals for mobile, on-the-spot computing power. Originally designed to help meet the demand during fall freshmen housing check-in, the units have also been used for faculty and staff tech training sessions. Units mounted on carts allow on-the-spot enhancement to presentations and classes.

There are conflicting views about how much money will be saved and a major factor is the implementation style. "The value proposition is a little tricky because the immediate impact on budget isn't necessarily noticeable or calculable," says Albatal. "When you tell a CIO that you are going to introduce a new technology and reduce servers from 100 to 10, that is straightforward. When you go to the same CIO and say, 'I want to introduce desktop virtualization and we'll be maintaining the same number of desktops and we need to buy more infrastructure to support those images,' he might not see the value."

Energy and cost savings are really seen in the server room. Savings can be less visible at the desktop because, if schools are reusing existing equipment, they are drawing the same power, but it does extend the refresh cycle and then upgrades are an option.

By contrast, thin clients will save energy because they draw less power, but they can cost more out of the gate. However, they have a longer lifespan than a normal desktop, so long-term savings has to be balanced against initial investment costs.

"Another issue is, if you don't already have the server power, it can cost as much as adding machines. Capital expenditure costs can seem more expensive, but what people realize is that, in an ongoing implementation, those operating expenses are greatly reduced," says Loof.

"We think it costs a little more to get started, but there are long-term benefits with power savings and a much longer replacement cycle," says Rahn. In addition to saving energy, being virtual supports green efforts by reducing the amount of technology waste because existing equipment can be used for a longer time.

"The decision to move to a virtual desktop environment was centered on replacement and operational cost. Once the virtual infrastructure was established, the unit cost to move an individual PC to thin client was approximately $20 to $350, depending on a thin client software replacement or hardware replacement," explains Webb. WTAMU was also able to eliminate redundancies on campus from departments maintaining their own servers.

"We're saving over $250,000 a year. We've redirected $50,000 to technology innovation and improvement grants," shares Fennel. "Our faculty can apply for grants; there is a formal rubric. We fund as many of the grants as we can each semester. It gives our front line people--who have great ideas about leveraging technology for student success--to [make these ideas a reality]. And it hasn't cost the college additional money."