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MIT business school grapples with virtualization

For now Sloan School of Management uses VDI, but is exploring more ambitious options.

By , Network World
May 10, 2012 11:43 AM ET

Network World - MIT's Sloan School of Management has embraced virtualized desktops as a way to meet user needs and streamline operations, but the IT staff accepts that finding just the right mix of hardware and software is an ongoing challenge.

Since the school started exploring thin-client virtual desktops in 2009, it has tried PCs, laptops zero-client devices and is considering expanding support to iPads and Android tablets, says Wesley Esser, MIT Sloan's director of information technology consulting and support.


Someday the school would like to abstract user desktop profiles so they are a composite of the individual files, databases and applications that can be pulled together on the fly for each user from pooled resources rather than separate virtual machines that have been created to represent each desktop, he says. But that day is a ways off.

Today, some of the school facilities support virtualization clients on PCs and some have zero clients from either Pano or Wyse. Many users don't realize they're working on virtual desktops; they think they're working on machines that run applications locally, he says.

The VDI journey started in 2009 with consideration of VDI for its PC-based computer lab, where students could access materials required for specific courses. The lab is general purpose - for teaching, checking emails, Web browsing, printing, accessing various software platforms as a service and accessing financial databases. But virtual desktops on PCs posed a management problem of maintaining the hardware and keeping the versioning of machine images up to date, he says.

In 2010 the school got a new building with eight classrooms and renovated its old building and installed VMware thin clients to provide desktops via PC over IP. The choice of VMware was a natural extension of the school using the company's products for its virtual server infrastructure, he says.

If something went wrong with the desktops displayed on the classroom PCs, it could be fixed quickly via the backend virtual machine that the classroom tapped for the virtual desktops. "It's easier to log into a custom VM than it is to install software on a PC on the fly and cause problems with other applications," he says.

In July of 2011 the school chose Pano zero clients because of its USB extension speed that was needed to connect the devices to audio-visual equipment that was used for presentations that included video. The devices have good interoperability with the gear and because of their small size, the devices can be Velcroed out of sight to the back of touchscreen monitors that are used in presentations, he says.

Since July, the school has given VDI to more staff in one form or another. The goal is less about the client machine than about the backend that makes it possible to access desktops from a variety of places such as home or conferences, Esser says.

Staff can borrow generic laptops with thin clients from the school to bring on the road with them and tap into their personalized desktop from afar. Or they can use thin terminals within the school. "We hope to give one rich environment and downplay the endpoint devices that are needed to get to it," he says. That way the number of endpoints to support makes no difference. Whatever devices suit the space that is available are acceptable and people can work from wherever they want.

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