virtual desktops in the higher education world

As I was working on my post about my adoption of the “VDI Lifestyle” I started thinking about the role and viability of virtual desktops in higher education in general.  It’s great that I’ve adopted it and use it the way I do, personally.  And I do think that the reasons why I’ve taken to it so thoroughly are important for many users to consider.    But from a strategic planning perspective, how do virtual desktops it fit into higher ed?

Operationally, a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is a pretty complex setup.  It has a lot of moving parts, and it relies on all of the moving parts all the time to be successful.  For us, that means VMWare View as the backbone, Unidesk for management of the desktops, Active Directory for access, and all kinds of hardware connected as thin clients, converted retired desktops, all-in-one clients with built-in monitors, and then many staff using full-function desktops with the VDI software.  There are servers (7 of them serving 300 desktops – imagine if you were a much larger institution), a fast storage array (running solid state drives), network switches and lots of blinking lights.  We’ve had hundreds of hours of configurations and many lessons learned the hard way.

So on the one hand, it’s a tough proposition for a small IT shop.  Even a medium sized one, if you don’t have dedicated folks, it’s not going to be easy.  There is more than enough specialized, proprietary knowledge to require quite a bit of staff time.  This is a key part of making a strategic decision to move forward.

There are significant benefits, though.  Centralized management, a clearly-defined budgeting plan (either servers or perhaps Desktop as a Service), addressing server and desktop needs all at once (a big issue for us when we started), and quick response to user requests (need SAS on your desktop?  Just give me 10 minutes, reconnect and it’ll be there) are just a few.  When the moving parts are in sync, it’s quite beautiful.  So for the administrator, it is a powerful tool, and for support staff, a way to ease the load.  And if we can ease the the administrative overhead, then we can allocate resources to other needs, such as in-person desktop support or personal consultation.

But making strategic decisions isn’t just about internal operations or ease of administration.  That’s all about the department.  What truly matters is what we can deliver to the end user.  Desktops for work productivity is a Business Service Catalog component, and we must never forget that we are trying to meet customer needs here, not our own.

The first question I ask myself when making strategic decisions is “how will this improve productivity for the staff, faculty, or students?”  Yes, sometimes these discussions are quite short – without an ERP, we don’t get much done at all, so we need to have one.  Upgrades to networking, wireless connectivity, and other factors are all in the same ball park.  But there are lots of other services that do require some more thought, and something as fundamental as one’s computer certainly does (or should) fall into that category.  Most of the time the average computer will meet all needs.  But one size does not fit all – will the standard desktop handle the work of a statistics researcher?  What about laptop users?  Ultrabooks vs. desktop replacement?

And if virtual desktops are under consideration, will what we can provide centrally meet the productivity needs of others?

On the one hand, pursuing uniformity and control can be contrary to academia.  Academia is about freedom, and in more ways than just thought.  The work environment is incredibly diverse.  You have faculty doing research on department computers next to personal laptops next to tablets. Staff work on university-owned computers but everyone installs their own applications, changes settings, etc.  This leads to greater demands for a more personal computing experience, too.  Even in computer labs, which are built for the common denominator, higher education workstations are far less controlled than just about anything you’d see in the corporate world.

And there is going to be a performance hit.   Unless you throw a HUGE amount of horsepower at any single virtual desktop, there will always be some difference from a physical computer sitting under your desk. And if you were to add more memory and processors to a VDI, then you sacrifice the scalability on the backend – before you could power 50 desktops per server, and now you can only do 20.  You are still at the whim of the network that connects you to the data center, for instance.  It’s not about bandwidth – VDI demands are actually very low.  But if the network goes down but the power is still on, someone on a physical is still working.  The VDI user is not.

But this is a two-sided coin, and understanding that is key.  First, how real is that performance difference?  Yes, the VDI is slower.  But are you less productive?  Is it so much slower that you are not getting work done as fast?  Most likely not, unless you are using some really heavy applications.  Second, the ability to provision desktops quickly is huge.  Recently, using TeamViewer to see the user’s desktop, we provisioned, configured and deployed a VDI with custom software and installed the software client remotely in less than 15 minutes.  We can provide custom desktops to admissions counselors on the road or at recruiting events.  Faculty can be overseas yet using the same personal desktop as on campus, with the same access to shared resources.  Being in a familiar setting eases collaboration.  And, of course, we can do this with only a few dedicated staff, freeing up other resources for field support, improving the experience of other users, as well.  In a small IT shop, this can certainly mitigate if not outweigh the technical challenges.

In the end, when you look at the entire picture, VDI can be a sound strategy.  It’s far too easy to look only at the negatives, the challenges, and write things off.  And VDI is not for every institution, and you’ll get a different answer from different CIOs.  But it can be a powerful strategic direction and tool for higher education, enabling IT departments to do more, and faculty and staff to be just as productive in most respects and arguably more so in some specific ways.

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