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Out on a Limb with Virtual Desktops – What’s in it for You?

Posted by Andrew Nadeau on Aug 30, 2011

This blog post was also published on VMware's End User Computing Blog.

Guest Blog Post (Part 2 of a 3 part series)
By
Raechelle Clemmons, CIO, Menlo College

There’s no question that virtual desktops can deliver a lot of advantages to those in charge of managing IT on campus. We’re certainly seeing our share of value here at Menlo College, where we’re reducing the operational costs of desktop management, lowering our capital expenses for PC refresh, and are in the ongoing process of reducing our carbon footprint. Over the past year, we’ve been deploying Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) to great organizational advantage. Our technology approach has been based on VMware View brokering software and Unidesk virtual desktop management software on our VMware vSphere back-end. By transitioning our complicated physical desktop infrastructure to a virtual one, we can rapidly deploy applications and Windows updates to personalized faculty and staff desktops, and easily service non-persistent lab and library desktops at a moment’s notice.

But what about the end users – the faculty, students, and staff utilizing these new virtual desktops?

If there is one thing I’ve learned in IT over the years, it’s that if you are going to go out on a limb with users, there had better be fruit. Users will only embrace something new if there is an obvious benefit to their way of working. Otherwise, the new technology had best be invisible. In the case of VDI, I think there are both clear, tangible benefits to students, faculty, and staff on campus, as well as some cases in which the user will not even realize their desktop is virtual.

In higher education, a large part of the benefit of VDI for teaching and learning has to do with how computing lab environments are traditionally managed. At most institutions, desktops are re-imaged once per semester (or quarter), right before the beginning of the term. So it’s imperative that a faculty member submit his or her software request on time, or risk not being able to get his/her software into a lab that term at all. With VDI, s/he can find something new to implement at anytime during the term, and it will take only a few hours to install virtually and deploy to a lab. And, software can be updated throughout the term, if needed. Let’s say Adobe releases a new version of their Creative Suite mid-semester, and the professor wants to start teaching on it right away. No problem.

Because there is no longer the need to have one set “image” for a lab, there’s also more flexibility for how labs are used, and where faculty teach. Instead of having a specific lab where multimedia applications are loaded, another for SPSS and other statistical programs, another that’s dedicated to “insert-your-flavor-of-software-here,” all of these can be maintained as virtual desktops. Then, a faculty member can book any available lab and load the desktop needed to teach the course.

With VDI, we don’t have to worry about software conflicts, either. Conflicting software can be run in the same lab under a separate virtual desktop, so this extends the use of lab environments, as well.

On the student side, flexibility and access are the biggest benefits. Students can have access to the software they need to do their homework or group projects, anytime, anywhere. No more having to find an available seat in a campus lab, during lab hours, to access the software they need. Obviously, this is huge, because students do lab work at three in the morning – probably some of their best work. I honestly wouldn’t be surprised if this single benefit becomes the big win and the reason for acceptance and enthusiasm among students for our VDI project at Menlo College.

For online-only students, they realize this same benefit, plus, they can be assured of operating in a consistent and controlled environment using institutional software on a virtual desktop. One of the challenges for online faculty and students is not knowing the student environment on the other end. Different versions of software, varied hardware setups, etc. can all cause problems for students that instructors can’t troubleshoot or solve. Now faculty can be assured that their online students are all operating in the same desktop environment, regardless of the actual hardware/software they have on their side.

There are lots of other benefits faculty, staff and students alike will enjoy. They can now receive updated software with virtually no downtime. Software can be updated at the application or OS layer level, and pushed out to user desktops late at night. When they boot up in the morning, they’re already updated. And VDI allows for much easier backup and recovery of desktops. Today’s physical desktops are not backed up, although some of the data may be. With VDI the full desktop and all personalized settings can be backed up and recovered quickly, if needed.

But the greatest benefit for users is that they’ll have access to the same personalized desktop anywhere. Thanks to VMware View, users can work on campus, off campus, from the road, etc. Desktops are now device independent, so there’s need to worry if a class is being taught in a Mac lab or if the end user has a different OS or limited hardware, or whatever. Even mobile devices like an iPad can be used to deliver the same set of software and end user experience. And there’s no need to sync files between multiple computers because they always access the same software, files, personalization, and more. Our Unidesk software ensure that users can experience their desktop just as if it were a regular PC or laptop, moving in and out of different programs as needed, installing what they want to get their jobs done, and taking their work with them anywhere they need it.

In short, the fruit of VDI is sweet, not just for the IT organization, but for the people who use this technology to teach, learn, and support our college in ways that are better than ever.

Posted by Andrew Nadeau on Aug 30, 2011