Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Supporting Education: A Few Stellar Examples to Guide the Way

There was once a time when “IT” was enough to describe a scope of operations, or the theme of a discussion. That time has long passed, prompting a deeper understanding of the processes that compose the ubiquity of complex technologies in daily life.

The world of education and academia are under the same pressure as enterprise to keep IT costs from weighing down organizations; thus, many have turned to Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) in an implicit acceptance of the same value proposition that many businesses have bought into. For example, the Center for Digital Education projects the IT budgets for grades K-12 of U.S. schools to exceed $11 billion this year, with the average spent per student growing by 18 percent over the next seven years. This imminent financial pressures are essentially obliging businesses to look for alternative, low-cost solutions which empower mobility, user-experience, and simplicity—all the while ensuring the security of data assets.

The trend has been supported by added value in a few areas. The lowering of capital costs appears to be one of the most enticing reasons, and the rest of the rationale logically follows. Administration of security and general management becomes much more simple and streamlined—and if managed and executed correctly, user-experience can be taken to the next level.

To highlight a few cases of VDI playing innovative roles in education, check out a few cases below that demonstrate what VDI can do when sagely applied for goals involving education.   


1. California Polytechnic State University

(Cal Poly), on the central coast between San Francisco and Los Angeles, has made a name for itself for the hands-on training it offers its 22,000 students in a variety of scientific and technical areas. A key part of that education involves computer lab work, where students gain real-world experience with the sorts of tools they can expect to be using in their professional lives. Recently, the school’s IT administrators were at a fork in the road. Many of the PCs in the labs had reached the end of their useful lives, and needed to be replaced to keep the school current with the technology being used in the real world. When they discovered that a traditional refresh cycle would cost upwards of $300,000, IT admins developed a Plan B: Keep as many of the machines as possible, but use them as thin VDI clients. The university was able to convert 288 PCs to work as VDI clients, getting performance out of them that would have equaled or bettered what a brand new system could have provided. And the improved user experience also managed to cost less, as the virtual desktops saved the school $30,000. The school is now working its way through all of its labs, moving to an all-virtualized architecture. IT officials like the easier administration of the VDI environments; students laud the quick response time and centralized data they get by doing away with scattered separate desktops.


Triple-digit growth can tax the resources of even the richest enterprises. It can be especially daunting, though, at public colleges and universities, which usually have to operate within tight budgets doled out by parsimonious legislators.


 Northern Arizona University

Enrollment in the last 15 years has grown a whopping 220 percent. Now, nearly 30,000 students are enrolled at 30 NAU facilities around the state. As is so often the case, the resources allotted to the IT department did not grow commensurately with the student body it needed to serve.

IT administrators responded by embracing virtualization, of both the server and desktop varieties. The PCs in traditional labs were replaced by thin clients, and the IT staff was able to push VDI into a few altogether new and innovative applications, such as specialized information kiosks and tutorial systems designed for the school's dentistry lab that allowed students to take pictures of their patients' teeth.

The school is now 80 percent virtualized, and the advantages have been legion. IT administrators have been able to slash the amount of time they need to spend on routine tasks such as setting up new PCs; in one case, 300 new systems were set up in just two hours. There have been other advantages. The VDI efforts allowed the university a significant reduction in the number of servers, with accompanies by savings in power and cooling expenses.

Next up: Getting the mobile phones that are now de rigueur for students to be full-fledged members of the campus VDI, just like traditional PCs.


3. Busy Bees

One of the United Kingdom's largest educational institutions, Busy Bees works with preschoolers more than any other outfit in the country. But the fact that its students aren't yet using complex business software doesn't mean that the enterprise doesn't have significant technology challenges.

The nursery-school provider runs more than 225 facilities around the country, all of them working to achieve the high standards the 31-year old operation prides itself on. But a series of acquisitions meant a bout of rapid expansion that had the IT department struggling to keep up. The number of PCs that needed support across its hundreds of facilities swelled to more than 1,000. The server room had 35 machines in it, and simply keeping it adequately air conditioned proved to be a challenge.

The answer emerged through an intelligent rollout of VDI. Those 35 servers were reduced to 6. And while there were 14 times as many desktops to support as had existed before, the IT staff only needed to expand by three-fold, with no drop-off in support levels.

One reason for the increase in desktops is that thanks to virtualization, most any kind of end device, including PCs that might have otherwise been slated for the scrap heap, could become a virtual machine. This allowed staff members to access their desktops from wherever they happened to be, a feature that teachers who only occasionally needed a computer's services especially liked.

In admiring such successes, it seems that there is little reason as to why education cannot be a principal driver and an early adopter of the technologies that might offer the most cutting-edge, cross-applicable impacts. As we see more examples of the benefits of VDI taking hold, we are presented with an opportunity to weigh in -- transcending theoretical chatter and moving into real analysis of cases of success and failure we are now equipped to compare the vast strengths against the potential concerns regarding VDI adoption. 

Food for thought until next time.

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