Educational Technology Services (ETS) and Information Technology (IT) have been testing new, special software called Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which grants students the ability to access Windows and Linux desktops from any personal device. As the program advances and becomes more widespread, VDI has the potential to frame the future of technology at New College.
According to a recent ETS presentation, in the context of computing, virtualization is the process of creating a virtual display of something, such as a virtual operating system or virtual storage device. VDI is software that runs an image hosted from a server of a desktop with preloaded applications. There are currently two options available. The first is a Linux, open source desktop called Virtual Computer Lab (VCL), which can be found at https://vcl.ncf.edu. The second, Windows desktop through VMware Horizon, is more developed and can be found at https://vdi.ncf.edu. For the Windows desktop, there are two desktop images available: one with a variety of applications loaded and another simply with Microsoft office and Google Chrome.
Currently, New College has the licenses for up to 20 students using the VDI at one time. VCL is not currently available off campus, but VMware Horizon is available anywhere. With VMware Horizon, users can access the Windows desktop with two methods: the desktop client can be downloaded on the user’s device or the image can be accessed through the Web on a browser. The only difference between the two methods is that peripherals, such as USB drives, can be used with the downloaded desktop client, but cannot be used with the web-based version. This forces work to be saved with an online Cloud service, such as Google Drive or Dropbox. The desktops right now are non-persistent, meaning that once you leave the image, or go over the three-hour time limit, all unsaved work is lost.
However, the usefulness of VDI technology is boundless. First, by using the browser version, the desktops can be accessed on tablets, and even on phones. This pairs the power of a Windows desktop with the convenience of a mobile machine. More importantly, VDI transcends the barrier between computer hardware, bringing specialized software to all devices. For example, some applications only run on Windows, but, with VDI, students can run a Windows desktop and access those specialized applications, including Microsoft Office, on a Mac. “I think specialized applications is a great use of [VDI], and, so you don’t have to go through installation and deal with the licensing issues and expenses,” ETS Coordinator Allen Goldberg said.
“I think from a student’s perspective, having the convenience of access from a Starbucks, Panera, anywhere I have internet, is much more convenient to me than having to come to a lab,” Ben Foss, director of networking services at IT, said. “This is the future of technology. Everybody is into mobility and making things accessible from nonconventional access methods.”
Professor of History Carrie Beneš is currently utilizing VDI technology through a Geographic Information Systems (GIS) project that is using a software program called ArcGIS. Beneš and a few students are editing a volume called “A Companion to Medieval Genoa.” The project entails creating maps for the book as well as a database of medieval Genoese cartographic material.
After attempting to do the project on the computers in the Academic Resource Center (ARC) and the Social Science Research Lab (SSRL), Beneš and her students decided to switch to VDI technology because of the increase in processing power and convenience. Her students not only increased their speed using the actual ArcGIS software, but also increased their productivity. Because they could just call up the virtual desktop from their own computer, they did not need to trek all the way to the SSRL every time they wanted to get work done.
“I think [VDI] will be used a lot in the future of any project like this that needs major processing power and specific types of software,” Beneš said. “The other thing about the virtual desktop is that ArcGIS software only runs on Windows, it’s not Mac-compatible. Using the virtual desktop, I can actually run a Windows desktop on my Mac here.”
“It’s super convenient,” third-year Nicole Rockower, who is part of the ArcGIS project, said. “I like it because I can run programs that my Macbook can’t run. I can pretty much do anything for the research.”
ETS and IT both addressed how VDI technology will shape the future of technology at New College. “Going forward, I personally would rather see us spending more of our resources on improving the virtual desktop environment and not worry about upgrading computers in the lab so much. Because that is an expense that once you spend the money those things start getting old right away,” Goldberg said. “I’d much rather see us invest there in that environment than on putting lots of new computers in classrooms.”
“From an educational technology perspective, I think it will be more of a cost-savings for the college as a whole,” Foss said, adding that the school’s computer labs are aging. “Each one of those computers costs a lot more because they need X amount of power to run all the software and hard-drive space. By having a virtual desktop environment, we can replace a computer with what’s called a thin client.” Basically, similar to an energy saving appliance, there are upfront costs from servers and licenses, but over time, the savings that accompany not having to update all the lab computers will surpass that initial cost. The thin client, for example, is about two-thirds the cost of a standard computer.
However, that does not mean the computer labs around campus will disappear. The key is keeping the balance between having enough computers up-to-date for students who do not necessarily have their own computer, and allocating enough resources to VDI.
“I think we’ll always have some number of machines here,” Goldberg said. “We might have fewer machines in the future under the idea that people have computers.”
As the technology progresses, many of the VDI issues will be smoothed out, especially the issue of non-persistent desktops. “This is our trial run, so we can identify these issues and make it better before this really becomes larger than it is. I could see it going 100 seats, 200 seats even,” Foss said.
Nothing is set in stone, but there are also preliminary conversations about initiatives to improve Wi-Fi access on campus. “If we can continue to work to expand our wireless outdoors, it would only make using this product even better. Could you imagine being at the bayfront and accessing a lab computer right in front of you? How cool would that be?” Foss said. “I envision a campus where the Wi-Fi is everywhere and where students can access these resources anywhere on campus, not just inside.”