UConn School of Business: A Dell customer profile

Jeremy Pollack, Director of IT at the University of Connecticut School of Business, discusses his organization's use of VDI and the benefits they've seen.
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

From time to time, I have an opportunity to communicate with someone who is actually putting technology to work rather than just speaking with suppliers. In this case, Jeremy Pollack, director of IT at the University of Connecticut (UConn) School of Business took time out of his busy schedule to fill me in on his organization's use of VDI. I believe his experience can be a guide to others dealing with a transient population that needs access to computing resources in secure, reliable, and mobile way. This experience could benefit organizations in healthcare and financial services as well. Thanks Jeremy for taking the time to bring me up to date on your organization's use of VDI!

Please introduce yourself and your organization.

My name is Jeremy Pollack, and I am the Director of IT at the University of Connecticut School of Business, responsible for information technology services.

What were you doing that needed this type of technology?

The University of Connecticut has been an early adopter of virtual computer labs to provide our students with access to the resources they need to be successful--wherever and whenever they need it. The School of Business ran a successful laptop program for 10 years, and through that program we recognized the value of providing students and faculty with a simple, reliable computing platform that gave them the necessary tools without the headache. Students had a device that simply worked and could be repaired or replaced 10 minutes before an exam. Faculty had a major headache removed from their plates, simplifying their role and raising the minimum standard technological bar, freeing them to explore new tools in the classroom.

Over time, as laptops approach commodity status and there was an ever-increasing push toward choice in the market, we looked to virtual labs as a logical next step. We saw an opportunity to enhance the overall educational experience by deploying a well-designed and executed VDI solution to address a number of overlapping academic and instructional needs. In response, we developed the vPC initiative, a collaborative effort between the University of Connecticut Libraries and the Schools of Business and Engineering. Through the vPC, we provide stable, reliable instructional platforms for instructor and student use both in-class and out. Our users are no longer confined to a physical PC in a lab or office, and the virtual labs aren't limited to just the schools of business and engineering. Any affiliate at UConn--students, faculty, and staff--can access Windows 7-based virtual desktops and UConn-licensed applications from their PCs, Macs, and mobile devices, from anywhere in the world with an Internet connection.

What products did you consider before making a selection?

UConn wanted a technology infrastructure that would best support the vPC initiative. We started with a need for storage, servers, and networking that could support 700 VMware View sessions on a scalable architecture. We turned to a Dell Virtual Lab VDI solution based on Dell EqualLogic storage arrays, Dell Wyse thin clients and PowerEdge blade servers integrated with VMware and Unidesk software to reduce our reliance on dedicated computer labs and office space while providing our 40,000-plus students, faculty, and staff with a more flexible computing experience.

Why did you select this product?

We chose the Dell Virtual Lab desktop virtualization solution because we were thinking in terms of scaling for the future. The half-height Dell PowerEdge M710HD blade servers have as much memory capacity as regular full-height blades, helping us make the best use of physical space in our data center. It is designed from the ground up to be a modular and scalable system. Now that we are ready to add more virtual desktops, we are simply adding more blades and more EqualLogic units. We're running 500 VMware View VDI sessions right now and our Dell PowerEdge M1000e modular blade enclosure is only half full. With the success of the vPC we are adding an additional level of scale including an additional set of hardware for a redundant second site.

In many cases, providing our users with a non-persistent, kiosk-style virtual desktop is sufficient. A user logs in, accesses any of the applications needed, and when logging off, the machine goes away. By allowing this type of access from any device, we don't have to tie up a lot of dedicated hardware resources in computer labs or on the virtual desktop infrastructure.

What tangible benefit have you received through the use of this product?

The flexibility of our VDI environment should reduce desktop hardware-replacement costs for non-persistent lab environments by 30 to 40 percent as we roll over to zero clients during our refresh cycles, resulting in a $318,000 projected CAPEX reduction for School of Business computer labs over five years. We are also beginning to see a significant savings in OPEX, including desktop support and lab management time. Time that IT staff used to spend managing software multiple times across many labs, can now be put to more strategic use.

At the end of the day, however, what we've learned is that, unlike server virtualization, VDI's primary benefit is not about CAPEX/OPEX savings. Rather, VDI is such a huge driver of value like physical space savings, equitable and reliable access to resources, support of distance and online education initiatives, and providing student choice that, in hindsight, we would do it again even if we only broke even.

Moreover, performance-hungry modeling and statistical applications run without a hiccup in the VDI environment. The performance we get from the Dell EqualLogic PS6110XS hybrid arrays is fantastic. The EqualLogic arrays do a great job of self-load balancing between solid-state disk and SAS disk to mitigate boot storms and provide the storage I/O we need to run demanding applications in a VDI environment without the cost of pure solid-state platforms.

Less reliance on physical labs and traditional thick-client PCs has enabled us to reduce power and cooling costs. Initial measurements show that we are dropping from about 1.5kWh/day to 1kWh/day for every regular desktop that we migrate to a Dell Wyse or any other thin or zero client.

What advice would you offer others facing similar circumstances?

VDI has a lot of value in higher education as the core technology powering the virtual lab. However, it is different than server virtualization. Carefully define your use cases and focus on delivering value first by extending physical labs with virtual capacity. Grow slowly and carefully as one day you will find that the students will have "discovered" how wonderful VDI is and your usage will quadruple overnight.

Before the UConn vPC initiative, during busy times, students often had to wait for an available computer. We would get comments from students saying we needed more computers, but it just didn't make fiscal sense to buy more because in the summer a lot of computers are not being used at all. With VDI, we've been able to stretch the IT dollar by expanding the lifespan of our hardware and reducing support costs, yet at the same time offer more educational resources to our students. For other organizations considering VDI, the technology provides the flexibility to satisfy users' access requirements without needing an IT admin to travel to classrooms to work on individual machines. It's definitely a myth that VDI is only appropriate for locked-down users or limited applications. UConn is a university with tremendous application and use-case diversity, so the ability to extend our VDI environment to more users, while making it easy for our administrators to provision, patch, and repair even highly customized desktops is critical.

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