Information Technology Systems and Services.

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Student Computer Labs Moving to Virtual Workstations

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After a successful pilot in the Library this past spring, ITSS staff plan to roll out virtual desktops to all basic access student computer labs throughout fall semester 2012. ITSS will be using VMware View to provide the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

VMware View allows us to host the desktop operating system within a virtual machine (VM) running on our VMware cluster. Existing computers will be reused during the initial roll-out and will be replaced with zero clients during the regular hardware refresh cycle.

Advantages

This hardware is less expensive, has lower maintenance, and consumes far less power than standard CPUs. The zero clients were used in the pilot, and students who used them did not notice any difference between this hardware on VM and the standard computers running the OS and software locally. We have also leveraged existing hardware with specialized software that connects to our virtual desktop infrastructure. This software allows us to transition to VDI workstations without losing the hardware investments we already have made. You can see these currently on the third floor of the library. The basic access machines there have been converted to "thin clients" and allow the users to log in directly to the virtual basic access labs. We are working to make the existing CD/DVD drives work with the software as well. All of the Library basic machines will be migrated to the new thin client by the end of October.

VDI also gives us several other advantages over the traditional lab offering. We will be able to update and deploy software more quickly. It also will let us easily maintain several distinct lab offerings to suit class needs. This service will also support a - Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) - environment, allowing users to run lab software on their personal devices both on and off campus. One of the best features is the entire session is AES encrypted which means you don't need to use VPN to work on files in your AD or Samba shares. You can even connect a USB drive on your local computer to the virtual machine to transfer files between them. Also, we can offer these virtual machines to Mac, Linux and Windows clients! So if there are programs you need that are Windows only, Mac and Linux users have an easier option with VDI.

2D and 3D Graphics Progress

This summer we attended conferences where we gained a lot of feedback about how well VDI is working for other institutions. As we had discovered during our pilot program and from other sources 3D graphics are really hard to virtualize at this time, but demos at one of the conferences showed astounding progress on this issue. VMware plans to release the updates to enable 3D graphics card sharing Q1 2013 and we will be piloting that as soon as it's available. Meanwhile the testing of programs such as Mathematica, MatLab and other computation heavy/2D programs has gone really well and we hope to release some test machines early spring so that users that have paid full access lab fees will start to see some of those extra programs available to them when they log in into the VDI workstations.

How You Can Participate

To help move us to a more virtualize server and workstation environment we have upgraded both the speed and size of our storage arrays (SANs). These upgrades will ensure we can meet the needs of larger and more power hungry servers and workstations. We look forward to putting all our systems through their paces and making improvements as we receive feedback from you, yes You!

Finally, if you'd like to use some of the systems, stop by the lab in the alcove just past the ITSS Computer Help Desk in the Library to use one of the zero clients. Please try out the rest of the basic access machines in the library as we completely migrate them by the end of Oct as well. Let us know what you think! We'll also be looking for BYOD testers this fall for a small pilot program. Please email amoren@d.umn.edu to inquire about being a BYOD tester! Thanks all and we hope you had a great start to your fall semester!

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