Emerging Technology

Desktop Virtualization

Virtualization is the general term used to describe the transfer of applications that typically run on a local, dedicated computer to a remote server where the applications run and output is then delivered back to devices over the web. Hence the name virtualization, derived from virtual computer. Virtualization allows many applications to be run simultaneously on central servers in such a way that the number of dedicated physical computers is reduced, often by a reduction factor exceeding 75 percent. Virtualization has significant advantages, but few environments represent as many potential advantages and benefits from virtualization as does higher education.

Both servers and desktops can be virtualized. While fundamentally similar in concept, there are very important differences. Server virtualization is widely practiced in numerous environments, including higher education, and it has advantages over numerous dedicated physical servers. However, a good argument has been made that reduced direct cost is not a significant benefit from server virtualization, given the cost for software and other components required to implement it.

Desktop virtualization, or now commonly termed desktop virtualization infrastructure (VDI), is the ability to move applications running on desktop and laptop computers to servers that do the processing and then return the results to the user, including computations and graphic images. The benefits of VDI are usually said to include:

  • Centralized application provisioning and a reduced number of software instances to purchase, manage and support;
  • negated need to distribute sensitive/confidential information to desktops and mobile devices for processing and storage; and
  • access to specialized applications anywhere via the web.

Higher education’s response to the need for specialized software to support academic programs has historically included providing students with laptop computers with software installed, requiring students to purchase and install specialized software on their own devices, providing “computer labs” comprised of desktops outfitted with software and, in most cases, some combination of the above. But the operating environment for higher education has inexorably changed, including perhaps the most rapidly changing element of all — technology.

Nearly all students come to campuses with their own technology. A recent EDUCAUSE Center for Applied Research study (ECAR, 2012) revealed that undergraduate students are well versed in technology before entering college, and most bring multiple information and communications technologies (ICT) devices with them to campus. The study found that 86 percent of college students own laptops, and 62 percent own smartphones. Of smartphone owners, 67 percent reported using them for academic purposes. As noted researcher and educator John Seely Brown has stated, “Today’s digital kids think of ICTs as something akin to oxygen; they expect it, it’s what they breathe and it’s how they live.”

Couple this reality of student-owned technology with the potential to run specialized applications, even those that require compute- and graphic-intensive resources, on virtualized servers, and enormous opportunities emerge for both institutions and students. Institutions can redeploy fixed computer labs to more pressing needs such as classrooms and reduce both direct and indirect costs for supporting laptop programs and similar initiatives. Students have virtual access to specialized software to support their academic success and career preparation. And, academic programs that have traditionally been campus-based can now be made available online via the web by a range of mobile devices.

VMware, Citrix, Microsoft, Oracle and other companies offer VDI solutions. VMware and Citrix are widely considered the leaders. VMware came to VDI via the server virtualization route while Citrix has operated in this space as a primary focus. Both companies offer excellent solutions; however, Citrix is currently regarded as a leader in desktop virtualization and its solutions — such as XenDesktop — may well represent more advanced technologies capable of supporting specialized software in such fields as science and engineering that are compute- and graphic-intensive.

As a critical note, VDI is a well-established technology with an excellent fit for higher education. The potential benefits are significant both programmatically and financially. However, the transition to VDI is not free, and campuses should not err in thinking that technology costs will be abrogated as a result of deploying VDI. Advanced technologies come at a cost for deployment and support. Deployed in a well-planned and well-executed way, however, VDI is an extraordinarily good fit for higher education.

This article originally appeared in the August 2013 issue of College Planning & Management.

About the Author

David W. Dodd is vice president of Information Technology and CIO at the Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, NJ. He can be reached at 201/216-5491 or david.dodd@stevens.edu.

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