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
  • 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.

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 24×7
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!