We’re waist-deep in a virtual desktop project here at Menlo College, and are about to jump into the deep end with both feet. This week marks the official public launch of our Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) initiative – deemed by some to be amongst the most comprehensive VDI initiatives in higher education because of the desktop types and use cases we’re tackling. We started our pilot only 5 months ago and within the next 3 months will increase our virtual desktop environment five-fold, providing us with an innovative desktop infrastructure befitting of Silicon Valley’s business school.
Our project is an ambitious one that will:
- give students greater access to lab applications,
- reduce the operational costs of desktop management,
- minimize the capital expenses needed for PC refresh, and
- reduce our college’s carbon footprint.
Do these goals sound familiar? I suspect they might. Many institutions are searching for the “holy grail” of desktop infrastructure and support – improved user experience and reduced overall costs. Well, we think we’ve found it.
The core of our technology selection involves Unidesk and VMware. Our brag sheet includes simultaneously deploying persistent and non-persistent virtual desktops for all users and use cases across campus. And, we’re the very first college to leverage Unidesk’s ability to create virtual desktops using only local storage to bring our annual cost per desktop in line with the cost of a physical PC – well under $300 (excluding staff costs).
So how did we do it? I thought you’d never ask…
We began with a substantial pilot, as well as an ambitious one—hitting all use cases at once with virtual desktops in two student labs, the Library, and administration; plus, we wanted to include faculty and student access and knew these desktops would be highly personalized. It is unusual to have VDI pilots move beyond labs, where deployment has been a bit easier because the desktops are almost always non-persistent. But we’re not a huge college, so undertaking VDI for just a few of our use cases wouldn’t let us get the maximum return on our investment to go further with the project. The ROI for VDI only makes sense the more virtual desktops you deploy…so we tried them all.
With our new virtual desktops, we can quickly deploy applications and Windows updates to personalized faculty and staff desktops and to non-persistent lab and library desktops at a moment’s notice. From a pure hardware and software perspective, we found that costs are about the same relative to physical PCs, but we’re already seeing that the amount of staff time and effort required to manage our VDI environment is much lower. And, importantly, access has improved – student labs are no longer bound by the sheer number of physical PCs or by lab space, rather, virtual labs can now be expanded as needed and accessed at any time from students’ own PCs in their dorms or from any thin client or PC on campus.
Now, with a successful pilot under our belts, we’re jumping into VDI feet first.
I suspect many of you are either examining or are already underway with a VDI pilot of your own, and may be able to benefit from our experience navigating these waters. We’ve learned a lot of important lessons along the way and I thought I would share a few with you.
#1: Know your environment
This may seem like a no-brainer – for any project it’s important to analyze your needs, match your solution to those needs, and so on. And while a VDI project is no exception, I would argue that a VDI implementation requires a much more expansive needs analysis than usual. Among other things, you’ll want to:
- identify your various use cases,
- review your software licensing,
- look into your server and storage capacity, not to mention network capacity, and, of course,
- fully understand your capital and operating costs.
Once you have a set of assumptions, challenge them. Use cases can be blurry, for example – what you thought was non-persistent may actually be persistent, and vice versa. Not every VDI management software or architecture can handle both types of desktops, so knowing what you *really* need (and want) is critical to your design process.
#2: Don’t forget the learning curve
VDI can be game changing and, if done properly, can produce tremendous value in the form of improved access for users, better security, or reduced operational costs, or all of the above. But not without some initial pain. Your IT staff will most likely spend more time managing desktops initially, not less, as they overcome the learning curve associated with creating, managing, and supporting virtual desktops. They may have to learn new tools in order to create desktops, and start to understand what symptoms pair with which components of the VDI infrastructure – network, broker, client, or desktop itself. Users, as well, may find interacting with a virtual desktop to be confusing, especially if it is launched on a traditional, physical PC. There’s nothing insurmountable here, but expect that the learning curve will be there, and allocate additional time in your project for it.
#3: Pick the right technology
There are a lot of VDI vendors out there, with more appearing every day. Make sure you pick the one that’s right for you (see lesson #1). We believe the key to our successful VDI initiative lies firmly with the enabling software we’ve chosen: Unidesk and VMware View.
With Unidesk, both persistent and non-persistent desktops can be supported and managed from the same console. We can also update desktops without “breaking” user installed applications or their desktop customizations, using Unidesk’s “desktop layering” approach. No one else can do that. By sharing the same operating system and application layers across many virtual desktops, we can “package-once, patch-one, deploy-once,” enabling us to update the OS or key application across all desktops in a few hours (or less!). Unidesk’s ability to provision desktops using only local storage and still offer full desktop recoverability was also a key factor in enabling us to implement VDI at such a low cost.
Where Unidesk enables us to create and manage the virtual desktops, VMware View gives us flexible access to them. It works with pretty much every client we have – repurposed PCs, Pano Logic and 10ZiG zero and thin clients, and even the Apple iPad. I, myself, have been using my iPad more and my laptop less. I open the View client for my iPad, and I have access to my fully customized, Windows XP virtual desktop and all of my apps, including our ERP…all from an iPad! Our students and faculty can also download the View client for their personal machines and access a virtual desktop from anywhere in the world they have an Internet connection – and they love the 24x7 access and View’s ease-of-use.
I would like to say that a cross-campus, multi-use case, simultaneous deployment of virtual desktops has been smooth sailing, but that would not be true. But all in all, we have found VDI to be a great adventure and one definitely worth taking. Bon Voyage!