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
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.
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
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
XenDesktop and Windows 2012 RDS for the workload layer;
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.
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."
Leila Meyer is a technology writer based in British Columbia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.