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Behind the scenes of Wellesley College's desktop virtualization rollout

College's CIO says VDI should translate into better apps access, simpler management and security

By , Network World
September 08, 2011 03:26 PM ET
Ravi Ravishanker

Network World - Although desktop virtualization is still a relatively new technology, Ravi Ravishanker is no stranger to it. He helped implement VDI projects at Pace University and Wesleyan University in recent years and now is overseeing a rollout at Wellesley College, the all-women's school west of Boston where he serves as CIO. I met with Ravishanker earlier this year in person and followed up by email with this series of questions that he and his staff answered about the school's deep dive into virtualization technologies.

Give me a thumbnail sketch of your overall IT setup.

Wellesley has both wired and wireless networks on campus, exclusively Cisco hardware. From the fall of 2011, we decommissioned the wired connectivity in the residence halls based on usage patterns over the past several semesters and the cost of upgrading the back-end infrastructure for supporting wired connectivity there. We have 1Gbps connectivity to the commodity Internet through Lightower Fiber Networks, a 100Mbps backup connection through Cogent. We have a secondary 1Gbps connection to Harvard for Internet 2 connectivity that is currently not being used and we are working with Lightower to reuse it for other purposes such as redundancy. Our servers are both Windows and Linux; we use Active Directory, Oracle, SQL Server, MySQL, Java and PHP. Our Learning Management system is Sakai (hosted by Longsight) and we have moved over 3,500 users to Google Apps for Education and the remainder will be moved by the end of this calendar year. Our ERP is Banner. We are a merged library/IT organization with 85 staff members (not all of them full time). We have approximately 2,400 students (the population on campus varies because of study abroad) and about 1,500 faculty, staff and others.

Tell me about the VDI project.

We are piloting a virtual desktop environment for two purposes. First, we are increasing access to Windows-only software for faculty and students with Macs or a different version of Windows. Second, we are rolling out thin clients for the first time to approximately 30 administrative staff, with plans to grow this further for shared student workstations, kiosks and other administrative staff with minimal computing requirements (e.g., Web-based applications, productivity software, etc.). We are also participating in a pilot called LabSTOR sponsored by NITLE (National Institute for Technology in Liberal Education) in collaboration with Longsight that is modeled after the [Virtual Computing Lab] developed at NC State. We will be able to provision virtual desktops for various classes with the appropriate academic software installed so students and faculty can use these remote desktops. The limitation of this is that the use times have to be scheduled ahead of time.

We have a group of five or so Library & Technology Services staff members who have done initial testing and we plan to roll it out to about 30 users (this would be our pilot). We do not have set goals at this point on how many this will expand to, because we need to be sensitive to the cultural aspects of this. We know that we will be installing several kiosk-like machines and thin clients for student workers in the department. According to NetApp, we have capacity for 50 concurrent medium-use clients and with the hardware upgrades scheduled for this fall, we will have capacity for closer to 125 concurrent users, which is a significant increase. Our hope is that through the initial pilot of thin clients, Mac use of Windows software and remote access we will be able to bring in more users to the table.

BACKGROUND: Desktop virtualization users discuss challenges

What inspired the college to adopt VDI?

The major benefit for users is improved access to critical applications, high reliability, and shifting the responsibility to maintain the operating system and software security from the users to IT. Whereas the initial cost of hardware may be looked at as not favorable, the added benefit of data security (because they are not residing on desktops or even home machines), the ease with which restores can be done (using snapshots via NetApp) and the ease of OS and other software upgrades justify this. I have helped implement this at Wesleyan and Pace University successfully and have learned a lot about what is needed to make this a successful project and was convinced that we had all the basics to be able to do it.

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