Virtualization | Q&A

Virtual Computer Labs on Campus

Kentucky institution rolls out desktop virtualization in its computer labs for the upcoming school year.

The University of Kentucky is in the middle of a desktop virtualization implementation that will open new doors for students using the school's 1,200 computers across 18 different computer labs. When the project is completed, students will no longer have to be physically present in one of those labs in order to use the software housed on those desktops and laptops.

"They'll be able to use the university's computer resources, whether they are on campus or off campus," said Vince Kellen, CIO for the Lexington, KY, school, "using their own computers.

Kellen and his team are working with Dell to finish the project before students return to the campus in the fall. Here, Kellen discussed the reasons behind the implementation, the progress made so far and the challenges UK's IT team has run into.

Bridget McCrea: Why is it time to virtualize UK's computer labs?

Vince Kellen: It's about mobility. A lot of students coming on campus these days are bringing all sorts of devices--from laptops to tablets to mobile phones. We wanted to give our entire student population--regardless of location--access to our academic software. At the same time, we want to encourage the use of "study spaces," where students can study together and collaborate in small groups. To accommodate this, our academic software has to be available for use on laptops and other mobile devices.

McCrea: Why was desktop virtualization the right choice?

Kellen: We've been looking at virtualization for a couple of years now. Every time we considered it, we evaluated the price of making this move and couldn't justify it. Now, the pricing on the technology is such that we can make the switch and budget for it internally. We'll redirect some of the money that was allocated to purchasing PCs and use it for this project instead. Over time, we'll probably remove a number of the physical PCs that are in the labs, thus reducing our equipment and replacement costs even further.

McCrea: How were your computer labs set up?

Kellen: We have under our control about 1,200 computers in 18 labs that are sprinkled across campus. So that is how we handle them now. We have another 500 to 600 computers in other physical locations around campus.

McCrea: How will the labs change, from the student perspective?

Kellen: They will visit a Web site and get a virtual desktop through remote access to a campus computer. Once logged on, they'll be able to use the software as if they were sitting in a computer lab.

McCrea: Are there limitations to what the virtualized system will handle?

Kellen: This system will be open to all UK students, but in some cases it may not work as well, and lab time may still be necessary. For example, if a teacher is using a software package that requires a specialized input device, then that won't be a good candidate for software virtualization. Architecture and design students will likely continue to use the labs, for example, as will those courses that are using Mac software. However, the setup will work just fine for at least 98 percent of software that's currently in use on campus.

McCrea: What obstacles have you run into?

Kellen: Mainly pricing and negotiating with vendors, who are finally coming down and offering prices that are doable for us. The other challenge is getting everybody ready, and used to the idea that you don't need to have a physical box next to you in order to run these programs anymore. We're working through this issue with training on the new system, and by educating staff on how beneficial it will be for students to be able to work in an "untethered" computing environment.

McCrea: What's the next step?

Kellen: Right now we're putting together the order for the Dell equipment and Citrix Systems software, and we plan to have everything up and running by September for Phase I, which will accommodate 500 current users. We'll monitor usage and see how quickly (or slowly) the system is embraced. If usage is growing quickly, we'll ramp up during Phase II. If it's going slowly, then we'll do more marketing and promotion to get more users onto the system. Looking ahead, we may advance to a third phase, which would find UK's faculty and staff computers incorporated into the virtualized system. We're tackling this in steps, measuring the progress and making decisions based on those results.

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