Higher Ed CIO: VDI Mobility For 50% Less Than PCs

Posted by Dion Baird on Sep 10, 2015

dion-baird-clackamas.png Dion Baird is the CIO at Clackamas Community College, one of the largest community colleges in Oregon serving approximately 25,800 students, including 7,000 full-time equivalents. Baird's vision is to modernize the school's outdated PCs with a new virtual desktop infrastructure that will give students mobile access to Windows applications. Here's the kicker: he's planning to offer this expanded access to educational resources while cutting Windows desktop delivery costs in half AND making his IT team more efficient. He explains how in this guest blog.

I joined Clackamas about a year and a half ago and am really glad to be part of the CCC family. The college is well-known for its vocational programs, particularly nursing and machining, which are two of the strongest programs in the Pacific Northwest.

Our PC Refresh Challenge

clackamas-community-college-logo.pngTo support our students, we have over 1,000 Windows desktops in various labs and classrooms around campus. As part of my initial analysis after arriving, it came to my attention that many of the computers were well outside of the 5-year hardware lifecycle. Due to the tight budgets for public institutions across the state, the college had to make some hard choices, and extending hardware lifecycles was one of them.

Still, it left the college in a situation where many of the PCs are now two or three years past the 5-year lifecycle. This is not the environment I wanted for our students, so I began researching ways to fix the problem. To establish a baseline, I ran what the current replacement cost would be. The college was spending approximately $1000/PC. To purchase 1,000 new PCs at $1,000 each, would be $1M every 5 years. This meant a recurring budget cost of $200,000/year if we were current with our lifecycle, which we aren’t. There had to be a better way.

I thought back to my time as a senior tech with the Oregon Department of Administrative Services where we had implemented a Windows 2000/Citrix server farm. I thought about how even back in 2002 we had been able to publish Windows apps and run them from either Mac or Windows PCs as if they were locally installed, and how the end-users didn't even know the difference.

I knew that the technology had advanced far beyond what was available then, so I began investigating what it would take to implement a solution at Clackamas leveraging the advancements that have been made in virtual desktop technology. As I got deeper into my research, I began to envision how we could transform our computer labs and extend the student desktop out to, and beyond the edge. The most important question for me though, was could we do it for less than the cost of buying new PCs?

How We Will Cut Our Desktop Costs in Half

The answer is yes, with technology from Microsoft and Unidesk. Let's look at the components:

  • Hyper-V is at the point now where it does everything we need it to do. Our Windows Server license agreement gives it to us at basically no cost. We've already started saving money by moving off of VMware maintenance and support.
  • Microsoft RD Connection Broker will handle connections to the virtual desktops. It's another native solution that comes with Windows Server as part of Microsoft VDI, and it eliminates the need for any third party broker solution.
  • Unidesk will be used for application delivery, Windows image management, and scalable RDS collection management. They are Microsoft's partner for scaling VDI and RDSH on-premise and in Azure, and their application layering technology is amazing. I wish we had it back in my XenApp days.
  • Servers and storage for our initial rollout will be borrowed resources, but we're looking at different options for hyper-convergence for when we go to production.
  • Our existing PCs will be used for client access, at least until they die. We can use Microsoft Thin PC to turn them into thin clients that boot directly into RD Connection Broker.

Total cost for our pilot: <$300 per desktop. Even adding in storage and servers, we will be <$500 per desktop in production. Then, by extending the lifecycle of the servers and storage to 7 years, versus 5 years, we increase the savings even further.

What We Do With the Savings

I would like to see the money that is saved get invested back into other new technologies. Technologies that will further improve the student experience, and provide new and emerging opportunities to enhance classroom and distance learning.

That said, our CFO/VP of College Services and I are looking further down the road. We have discussed how great it would be to get out of the legacy PC business entirely. What would it look like to provide a BYOD environment for not just students, but staff as well? For those areas that would still require the college to provide hardware for access, Clackamas can replace aging PCs with zero clients that are more energy efficient and longer lasting.

Clackamas needs this kind of forward thinking to enable the college to leap to the forefront of technology, instead of running 5 or 10 years behind. We plan on combining advancements like VDI with additional classroom tech. For example, we're always looking for extra classroom space. Wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t need dedicated computer labs? Imagine a dual-purpose classroom where instructors could flip a switch and monitors would come up out of the desk. Presto, instant community learning center. Doing things like this can generate new revenue opportunities and save money for the college, while better serving the community.

How We Get There

The first steps of doing the research, and purchasing the components for a proof of concept have already been completed. The next steps are implementing the proof of concept, marketing, gathering feedback, and rolling out the final solution. The college is also finishing a $1.2 million foundational network refresh, which modernizes the network, provides increased security, and will increase the bandwidth to 10Gbps.

The proof of concept when it’s finished will support small production environments to allow the ITS division to analyze and refine the solution. The initial proof of concept for Microsoft VDI and Unidesk will include:

  • Our financial assistance lab that serves the constituents of the college;
  • Fasco automotive lab;
  • Theater box office kiosk;
  • IT desktops;
  • Select faculty and staff desktops.

Once these use cases become established, we expect demand to grow as people see the benefits of mobility and instant application access.

Clackamas Community College has a shared governance model that requires support from the college as a whole in order to make large-scale changes. To garner this support, the ITS division will conduct a marketing campaign with the faculty and staff. One of the initial fears of people is that because it’s not a ‘real’ desktop, that it won’t be the same, or that they will lose control of how their desktop looks. In order to mitigate this fear, ITS will provide hands-on VDI labs, where the college community can have the opportunity to experience our virtual desktop solution for themselves. During these labs, ITS technicians will be on-hand to answer questions and take feedback from our customers.

Being Good Stewards of State Money

The bottom line is that VDI makes sense at an enterprise level, and at Clackamas. Government institutions need to be accountable and are responsible for spending money wisely. I say this as an Oregon taxpayer, not the Clackamas CIO. Community colleges are always trying to build sustainable infrastructures on razor-thin budgets. If we can empower staff and students to do more while spending less, and increase IT efficiency in the process, how can we not pursue this path?

We're chomping at the bit to deploy. I look forward to providing an update on our progress in future blogs.

Topics: Guest Blog, VDI cheaper than PC refresh

Posted by Dion Baird on Sep 10, 2015

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