Virtualization | Feature

Computer Labs Report to the Holodeck

Virtualization can transport the benefits of even specialized computer labs to students anywhere, alleviating crowding and saving money.

In many ways, specialized computer labs are the black holes of IT organizations. Budgets, equipment, employees -- even space itself -- are sucked in. Given a choice, many IT shops would engage warp drive and escape their gravitational pull forever.

While Captain Kirk might have looked to Scotty for a fix to the problem, colleges and universities are increasingly relying on a solution that comes without the Aberdeen accent: virtualization.

It's not exactly the Star Trek transporter, but virtualization gives institutions the ability to deliver the benefits of a computer lab -- even specialized labs for disciplines such as computer science and engineering -- to students anywhere without the hassles or expense.

With demand for lab access increasing and budgets in a tailspin, more institutions are using software from vendors such as Citrix and VMware to reconfigure their servers and virtualize access to the applications in specialized computer labs. All the applications run on the campus' servers and can be accessed via a web browser from anywhere students can find an internet connection.

"We now can make the resources available wherever and whenever they're needed," says John Savage, chief technology officer at Montgomery College in Rockville, MD. Before moving to Montgomery College last year, Savage led a virtual computing lab project at George Mason University (VA), using open source software initially developed at North Carolina State.

His team at George Mason estimated that the yearly cost of maintaining a virtual lab is 27 percent of its physical counterpart, and a virtual lab consumes only 13 percent of the power. "We didn't even factor in the cost of the room itself," notes Savage, "and the cost of building additional classrooms is tremendous."

Even if campus lab space is not eliminated, Savage is convinced that it can become more flexible. "I don't need an arts lab that has only the art software and an engineering lab with only engineering software," he stresses. "With virtualization, a single physical space can be one type of lab in the morning and another in the afternoon. And I can buy thin clients for $300 that may last seven years, instead of PCs for $1,200 that will last three."

Freeing up Space
San Diego State University's College of Engineering launched a virtual lab pilot project in September 2010, in part to alleviate a space crunch. The college is growing by 5 to 7 percent per year and estimates it will soon need a building three times its current size to keep up with enrollment.

With computer labs forced to double as classroom space, it is not unusual for lines of students to snake down hallways waiting for classes to end so students can use specialized software such as ArcGIS, ProEngineer, and AutoCAD.

SDSU Engineering is using Citrix software for its virtual computing lab, which students now can access from their own laptops and other mobile devices.

"So far, the virtual lab is extremely popular with students and is alleviating a huge space problem for the college," says Darrell Irwin, SDSU's resource manager.

Interestingly, SDSU had tried something similar with Citrix software almost 10 years ago, but abandoned the effort because the technology was slower and the licensing cost was higher. "Now the pricing on Citrix is significantly lower and the performance is much better," says Irwin.

Because of its earlier poor experience, the college decided to ramp up slowly this time. In fall 2010, the virtual lab was made accessible to 350 students in six classes." "We will use that as a model," Irwin says, "and by fall 2011 we expect to roll it out to all 2,200 students."

One early benefit is that students are accessing the software on mobile devices such as iPads and smartphones. "We are seeing new uses develop," notes Irwin. "This new mobility means students can share what they are doing with other students, or show up at a professor's office so the student and faculty member can look at something together."

Reducing IT's Footprint
By embracing virtualization, Weber State University in Ogden, UT, has been able to cut down on the number of open computer labs and the cost of supporting them, while giving students more flexibility in how they access the lab's software.

Launched in 2006 using Citrix software, WSU's virtual lab consists of three physical servers and six virtual servers running numerous software applications.

"Our campus is 100 percent wireless and almost all students have their own laptops," says Shelly Belflower, director of technology services at WSU. "We have decreased the number of open labs from eight to five. Those spaces that were labs have been converted back to classroom environments, and other departments have taken back responsibility for them, so that decreases our costs."

Like Montgomery College's Savage, Belflower is also saving money on equipment. "We have switched to purchasing thin clients such as Wyse boxes for our physical lab spaces," she explains. "Those cost $350 less and have a life cycle two years longer than the desktop PCs we were purchasing."

Students in Health Administrative Services were among the first beneficiaries of the new virtual lab. Many of them are employed in healthcare settings and had to travel long distances after work to access the specialized software in WSU's physical labs. Now they can access that software from work or at home.

According to Belflower, there is still room to grow. "Some software that is older and runs in a Windows 95 environment won't run in this environment," she says, "but we are always finding new applications that we can run centrally. We just added Minitab statistical software and usage shot way up." Between 2009 and 2010, the number of applications available through the virtual lab increased from 54 to 62.

An Open Source Option
At Montgomery College, Savage is working to repeat the success he had at George Mason with open source software. A pilot project under way will be rolled out collegewide by next fall, giving all students remote access to the software applications they need.

For institutions trying to determine whether it makes sense to use an open source solution, he counsels that it depends on the size of the project.

"The commercial products are all good and have their place," notes Savage. "If I were just doing a 25-seat lab, that would make sense to me. But with a large campus with tens of thousands of students, the licensing fees would probably run $100,000 per year."

What Savage likes most about the open source Virtual Computing Lab (VCL) software is how easy it is to add features. For instance, his team customized a reservation system to allow faculty and students to reserve access to a virtual computer furnished with the applications that they want. The user enters the online reservation system, selects the desired resources, and a suitable online computer is created.

"At a school like Montgomery College, with 60,000 students, if you are in a big class with software that is not completely site-licensed, it is nice to know you have a reservation for when the resource will be available to you," says Savage.

The VCL system also makes it easier to track software license usage, and Savage is working to match up faculty members to share licenses. For instance, if two faculty members use statistical software for different topics on different days, perhaps they don't have to buy 25 licenses each. "The more you can split those costs, the more you can leverage that funding," he says.

Getting buy-in from faculty has been surprisingly easy, too. "I don't have to ask or plead with faculty to use this once they see it," says Savage. "The first question is, 'How quickly can I get it?'" At all possible speed, Mr. Sulu.

A License to Save

Site licenses for software are expensive, but higher ed institutions have often found them to be the simplest option because it's so difficult to gauge usage accurately. However, that difficulty disappears in virtual labs equipped with tracking software, enabling IT organizations to buy individual licenses based on actual usage. As many IT directors can attest, the savings really add up.

Cost savings were certainly one of the motivations behind the creation of Weber State University's (UT) virtual lab. According to Shelly Belflower, director of technology services, the school was reluctant to pay site licenses for software that was used in only a few courses. Instead, it bought individual licenses and limited the number of students who could use the software at any one time. "We have several applications that are metered and we have only 25 or 30 licenses," she explains.

With students able to access the software around the clock from their own PCs, even the limited number of licenses has proved sufficient.

A similar rationale prompted George Mason University (VA) to install scheduling software in its virtual lab, allowing students to reserve applications ahead of time. As a result, 40 students can share 10 licenses of an application such as ArcGIS because they reserve time slots to use the software.

By tracking student usage, says John Savage, CTO at George Mason, "you can easily make adjustments and buy more copies of what you need and less of what you don't."

As more universities create virtual labs, software vendors may be forced to rethink how they charge for software. If virtualization technology makes software available to more students, vendors may argue that they should be able to charge more.

The flip side of the argument is that schools have possibly been overpaying for their licenses for years, and that accurate tracking of usage creates a fairer financial arrangement between vendor and school.

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