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? (more…)