Desktop virtualization ups school's operational efficiency

Summary:case study Technology helped boost efficiency of computer resources, giving "digital native" students at Temasek Poly's school of informatics and IT flexibility to access learning materials, says one staffer.

case study With desktop virtualization, the school of informatics and IT (IIT) at Temasek Polytechnic (TP) saw improvements in operational efficiency of its computing resources, manpower and capabilities, all of which ultimately empowers students with the freedom and flexibility of learning in "21st century digital classroom".

Lim Boon Teck, section head, infrastructure systems and technology at the IIT school, said the main aim of implementing virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) of the school's computer labs was to boost its accessibility and availability for students in order for "learning anywhere, anytime and on any device".

The virtualization technology, supplied by VMware, "freed up the physical boundary", so students would not be limited to using any of the school's 55 PC labs only during opening hours, Lim told ZDNet Asia in an interview Friday.

He added that students could access the software through the virtual client on their own laptop and mobile devices. The client is available on iOS and the Android platform.

"We recognized our students are digital natives, and they're used to accessing information 24/7, so we started a VDI project to make sure our physical environment, infrastructure systems, applications and services would support learning for these digital natives," he said. He declined to disclose the investment amount.

"…we started a VDI project to make sure our physical environment, infrastructure systems, applications and services would support learning for these digital natives."
-- Lim Boon Teck
section head, infrastructure systems and technology, School of IIT, Temasek Polytechnic

Rollout challenges
According to Lim, the decision for VDI was first brought up a few years ago, as part of an overarching concept of providing interactive digital media learning for the student population.

However, actual implementation started in August last year after other necessary things were put in place such as a new energy-efficient data center and broadband network in the school.

The infrastructure was fully built by October in the first phase to serve as a trial for about 600 students and gather user feedback. The second phase, set for competition Apr. 23 this year, will see it rolled out across the whole IIT school, which has a cohort of about 1,800 students.

Lim said building the VDI within the span of two months was the top challenge the project encountered. "A typical project plan is a comfortable 6 months; 3 months is considered intensive. So this was a very accelerated project. We were sweating it out almost every day in those two months."

The tight deadline was because the school's semesters are in April and October, and it did not want to "lose the opportunity to have students experience using a virtual environment for learning, so we gave ourselves that target of having it up in time for use by the October semester".

Ease and accessibility
Thanks to desktop virtualization, students now have a standard computing environment which "empowers them with the flexibility" to use their own devices to access all of the school's computing resources and learning materials anywhere in or outside of school grounds, Lim said.

Such freedom and mobility were not possible with the school's previous IT infrastructure, he pointed out.

In the past, if students needed to access a specific type of software, they had to "reserve seats for themselves" in those labs with PCs configured with that software application. With VDI, whatever software they require--and are entitled to with their user login credentials--can be streamed from the central backend server to the school PCs or their own device.

Security-wise, Lim noted that looking from the end-user perspective, students were "more afraid of losing their data than whether the desktops were secure or not". Because of desktop virtualization--which means none of the software is stored locally on the labs' PCs--students cultivate the discipline and gain the assurance of doing regular data backups on their own devices such as external thumbdrives or hard disks.

There are two other side-benefits as well, Lim said. First, having been exposed to using VDI in their school-going years, students are "market-ready" when they enter the workforce. As for lecturers, it means students no longer have excuses to delay homework submissions because their work got lost when the school's PCs crashed, since backups become habitual, he added.

Operational efficiency
It was not just the student population that has benefited from the technology, but also the school's technical support and operations team, Lim emphasized.

With the school's IT infrastructure being the "front desk" for students to access computing resources, efficiency in deploying resources on demand was the key issue that VDI helped solved, Lim said. "If we continued with the same [infrastructure], at the rate enrollment is going up with full-time and part-time students, even 100 technical staff wouldn't be enough."

With 55 labs each comprising about 28 computers, it used to take 3 weeks of a "very manual labor intensive process" to get a few thousand desktops fully configured with the various software applications required for the school's courses before the start of each semester, he said.

This typically involves starting with one PC software configuration to first get the green light from the respective lecturer. The technical support officer (TSO) then clones the configuration across the total number of PCs allocated for that software, which takes about 6 to 8 hours. The "most painful part" is when the cycle has to be repeated if failures occur, and staff must rush it out to get everything ready before the semester starts, sometimes requiring them to run it overnight or on weekends, he added.

Desktop virtualization meant these issues are over, Lim explained. TSOs only need to do any software installation on their own desktop, and since the operating system and the software applications are captured in one "image file" which can be virtually streamed to other computers, "the next thing is to click and all the allocated lab desktops are issued the necessary software within a day, instead of three weeks", he said.

Also, because the desktop PCs in the labs are now "behaving like thin clients", in event of hardware failure during lesson time, a classroom of students can also simply move to any other lab to use the computers to use the same software and resume lessons, he added.

Concluding, Lim said virtualization's benefits for academic institutions should not be weighed against the benefits when deployed in corporate entities. It is all about what are business needs for each organization that get solved with the same technology, he argued.

While he acknowledged that there were savings in terms of real estate space and power consumption, for schools the intangible benefits were more important. "We look at student and staff development as a launchpad to help them come into a 21th century digital classroom where they are able to access their educational materials with ease."

Topics: Networking, Apps, CXO, Hardware, IT Employment, Mobility, Software, Tablets, Virtualization

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Jamie Yap covers the compelling and sometimes convoluted cross-section of IT and homo sapiens, which really refers to technology careers, startups, Internet, social media, mobile tech, and privacy stickles. She has interviewed suit-wearing C-level executives from major corporations as well as jeans-wearing entrepreneurs of startups. Prior... Full Bio

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