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Scaling Up the Virtual Computing Lab

Universities are working together and sharing resources to create virtual labs with more powerful computing capabilities--and to save much-needed cash.

Economies of scale. It's one of those phrases bandied around whenever one corporation swallows another. Yet that is exactly what several college systems hope to achieve by having their member campuses collaborate on IT projects. For The California State University, facing $500 million in budget cuts proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown, you might even call such projects economies of necessity.

At Cal State, the whole idea dates back to a meeting in 2009, when the CIOs of the 23 CSU campuses agreed to pursue five or six projects with the potential to generate efficiencies for the entire system, rather than individual campuses. Among the winning projects, not surprisingly, were virtual computing labs (VCL). After all, virtualization has already proved to be a gold-star money saver for colleges and universities in the United States. But Cal State decided to take the concept of virtual labs one step further--by opening the labs up to students and faculty across multiple campuses.

In the upcoming April print edition of Campus Technology, learn how virtualization can bring the benefits of even specialized labs to students anywhere, saving space and money.

"Schools will really want to take advantage of access to more computing power and getting the best deal for their money," said Lee Thompson, deputy CIO at CSU East Bay and VCL project leader. "The financial crunch is only going to add to our momentum."

Modeled on open source software developed at North Carolina State University, the Cal State VCL project was launched in April 2010, with pilots at CSU East Bay and CSU Northridge. IBM provided consulting help.

Both pilots went well, Thompson said, and the next step is to incorporate two more schools: CSU Chico and CSU Monterey Bay. Instead of adding servers as more schools join, though, Cal State is working on a cloud-based approach with Amazon. "That will provide the computing power to expand considerably," Thompson said, noting that a demonstration of the cloud approach should be ready this spring.

Besides reducing the need for physical lab space and increasing service to students, the biggest benefit of the project might be in the realm of software licensing, said Chris Olsen, senior director of infrastructure services at CSU Northridge. "Instead of two campuses having 2,000 copies each of Adobe Creative Suite 5, we can have 1,500 concurrent copies shared across two campuses and tracked by our access management system," he explained.

Olsen said that the software vendors realize they need to come up with a model that will work in this type of virtual environment, but they are not quite there yet. "I think that we will see a huge change in licensing models within two years," he said, "because what we are trying to do will be undermined if we don't get vendor buy-in."

Another great potential of cross-campus virtual labs is the creation of computing infrastructure for faculty, Thompson added. When classes are out during the summer, Cal State can devote processors and memory to experiments or large-scale computing projects. "This may give our researchers the opportunity to compete for more research grants," he said.

Striking Out Alone
While there is broad agreement among CSU administrators about the desire for a collaborative VCL setup, there are signs of some stress in the partnership. Cal State's largest campus, CSU Fullerton, has forged ahead by creating its own VCL in a private cloud. Amir Dabirian, Fullerton's vice president of information technology and CIO, said his team was able to create its VCL by redeploying servers and workstations already on campus. For example, blade servers, which have great CPUs, just needed memory upgrades to serve as nodes in the VCL infrastructure. So far, Fullerton has 660 nodes up and running as part of a pilot this spring, with plans to roll the project out more widely in September with about 1,000 nodes.

Although he said he's interested in collaborating with other campuses, Dabirian wanted to move forward more aggressively. The multi-campus project had limited computing power available for the pilot, he said. "As the largest CSU campus, we went our own way. We had employees go to NC State to work with them, and now we have considerable expertise in house," he says. "I am hoping we can consolidate with other CSU campuses later. If the collaborative effort develops, we are game. Our architecture is flexible, and there is no reason we could not join a consortium."

California isn't alone in seeing opportunities to collaborate on VCL projects. North Carolina has created a consortium of VCLs that involves eight higher education institutions. Universities in Virginia have begun work on a Virginia Virtual Computing Lab. And, according to John Savage, chief technology officer of Montgomery College, plans are in the works for a VCL to serve all of Maryland.

"We see clear opportunity to share in hardware, software, and support costs," he said, "and these opportunities to share will not only help us to survive tough economic times but will also allow us to provide improvements to a number of our academic services as well."

About the Author

David Raths is a Philadelphia-based freelance writer focused on information technology. He writes regularly for several IT publications, including Healthcare Innovation and Government Technology.

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