Virtualization | Project Spotlight

Georgia Tech Engineering Students Use Virtual Desktops to Access Specialized Tools Anywhere, Anytime

One of the country's largest engineering programs has implemented virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) so its students can access industry standard engineering software tools from any computer, anywhere they are connected to the Internet.

Challenge

Georgia Institute of Technology serves 21,000 students, nearly two-thirds of whom are enrolled in the university's engineering programs. Students are required to have their own personal computer, typically a laptop. However, many of the industry standard software tools that they are required to use as part of their program, such as AutoCAD and other complex tools from Intel, Broadcom and Texas Instruments, can't be installed on student laptops. As a result, even though students could access the campus network from anywhere using their laptops, they still had to go to the engineering labs to complete course assignments.

"Near the end of the semester, when everyone was trying to finish their projects, there was a line outside the computer labs of people waiting for a spot to open up so they could get into the lab and do what they had to do," said Didier Contis, director of technology services for the College of Engineering. In many cases, the students would be in the labs on the weekends or late at night "because they needed to use that specific computer lab to use a specific piece of engineering software," he said.

For students taking courses in two different engineering disciplines, such as mechanical and electrical, they would have to find time in two separate computer labs to complete the assignments for each course.

Solution

The university administrators recognized the challenges for students and started looking for a solution. "We wanted to decouple the need to be physically present in a specific location at a specific time to use an application," said Contis.

The solution was to implement a virtual desktop infrastructure, called Vlab, so students could remotely access engineering software from anywhere using their laptops. Georgia Tech started its Vlab project back in 2007, and it has gone through several iterations since then. "We had probably seven stages, and with each different stage we would add servers or try a different type of storage," said Contis. Vlab currently uses Citrix XenDesktop and Windows 2012 RDS for the workload layer; Citrix XenServer and Microsoft Hyper-V 2012 as hypervisors; NetApp ONTAP and EMC ExtremIO for storage; and Cisco Nexus switches for the network layer.

The VDI architecture uses a "condominium model, where several academic units invested in an infrastructure that would be able to support multiple technology stacks for virtual desktops. That means different hypervisors and different general workloads, but they would share the common infrastructure around storage and network," said Contis. The virtual desktop infrastructure is shared with the College of Business, the College of Science, the College of Architecture and the College of Liberal Arts, and each college has its own servers, but the College of Engineering is the biggest VDI user.

Results

With the Vlab, engineering students no longer need to wait for a spot in the computer lab to complete their assignments. Instead, they can do their work from anywhere, whether they're in their dorm room, off campus or around the world. In fact, Georgia Tech's College of Engineering offers a distance education program for students located anywhere in the country or the world. With the Vlab, those students can also access the tools they need to do their work.

Besides giving students access to specialized software, the Vlab has also benefitted the faculty. "The VDI technology and Vlab have enabled us to provide faster service for software and applications," said Contis. In the pre-Vlab era, faculty would have to give the technology services team weeks of advance notice when they needed new software installed in the computer labs, but with VDI, the team can deploy those tools more quickly, so they don't need as much advance notice.

"As an instructor, you can focus more on the instruction side of things and worry less about the logistical issues associated with your class," said Contis. "It's about being able to deliver the right tool at the right time, without the change-management process that requires two month's notice or two week's notice if you need a piece of software installed."

The Vlab also makes more efficient use of the university's resources. "The computer lab is inefficient because it's always hot and it takes a lot of space, and it takes a fair amount of capital investmentment to refresh it every three to five years," said Contis. "At the same time, the capacity of the computer labs is not used all of the time during the semester or during the year. For example, during the summer semester, when we have lower enrollment, many of the machines sit idle. They consume electricity and produce heat during the summer semester. So resources were not well managed."

With VDI, there are fewer computers consuming electricity, generating heat, and requiring upgrades, and the VDI resources can be repurposed more easily. "If you have all of your resources aggregated and you layer on top of it some sort of virtualization, you're creating a pool of resources that you can quickly repurpose," said Contis. "Then, during the summer semester when you don't need as many machines to support regular instruction, you can create some large virtual machines with a lot of more memory, a lot more CPUs, and assign them to graduate students to support their research activities."

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About the Author

Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at leilameyer@gmail.com.

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