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Virtual Desktops Make The Grade At USC

USC Viterbi School of Engineering is finding that VDI can replace computer labs for high-demand engineering students.

Curtis Franklin Jr.

November 18, 2015

5 Min Read
<p align="left">USC Viterbi School of Engineering may be able to reduce spending on new buildings by deploying virtual desktops for engineering software.</p>

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Bricks are expensive. When you have to buy enough of them to build an academic hall filled with computer labs and classrooms, it gets very expensive, indeed. That's why the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering was open to the idea of trading real bricks and mortar for virtual desktops.

It's easy to wonder why any university would consider building a computer lab when students bring between five and seven Internet-connected devices with them when they come to school. It's a legitimate question, and there are two legitimate answers. One is graphics: Especially in the engineering and scientific disciplines, many applications have demands that go beyond the capabilities of the average laptop. The other is the software itself. It is far more cost-effective for a university to license advanced software for a lab full of computers than to try to put a legitimate copy of the software on every student's laptop.

Meeting Student Expectations

In a telephone conversation, Michael Goay, IT executive director at the Viterbi School of Engineering, said that traditional academic computing practices and modern student expectations add to the budget challenges his department faces. "Today's students come with higher expectations of IT. They expect anytime-anywhere access to instructional tools, class materials, and the support they need for projects," he said. "Students bring multiple devices and want to access multiple tools," Goay added, explaining that it's important to faculty that students have a uniform experience of the software no matter how it's accessed. That uniform experience is the goal of a project begun in early 2014 to make engineering applications available through a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

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Admitting that VDI has been in academic institutions for years, Goay said that the aim of this project was quite specific. "Our intention was for graphics-intensive applications," he said. To meet the intention, the department matched VMware vSphere hypervisors with servers of two different configurations. According to a case study sponsored by VMware and NVIDIA on the project, the project is run on "... eight Dell PowerEdge R720 servers equipped with 384GB of RAM, Teradici APEX PCoIP-offload cards, and local SSDs that boot non-persistent linked clones." Divided into two groups of four, one group of servers carry two NVIDIA GRID K1 cards and one Teradici card each while the other group is equipped with two NVIDIA GRID K2 cards and two Teradici cards each.

[ Read VDI Prepares Sussex County, NJ, For Anything. ]

The first group of servers supports up to 32 simultaneous virtual desktops running heavily graphics-intensive applications. The second supports up to 192 simultaneous virtual desktops running applications with moderately intensive applications. In all cases, Goay said that the servers are, "... providing a set of non-persistent virtual desktops with a user profile and user storage. If they log in on Friday morning, the student gets a generic virtual desktop; they will save their data to a persistent storage that follows them."

Reducing Desks, Not Desktops

Goay is very clear that the VSI platform the school is providing is a replacement for lab computers that would traditionally offer access to specialized software: It is not a full-featured desktop replacement. He said, "Right now, we have about 8,000 students on the system. With any VDI deployment, 8,000 simultaneous users is expensive." Only a fraction of those 8,000 students will be using the system simultaneously. Goay said that the IT group is exploring options for systems that will provide greater user density per server with an eye toward offering desktop replacement for faculty and staff in the project's third year.

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While the VDI deployment is bringing benefits to students and faculty, by allowing students to use specialized software on essentially any platform, at any time, and from any location, there are more tangible benefits that have won the project support from the administration. "The Viterbi School is facing increased enrollment," Goay said, explaining that one way the school is dealing with the increase is through greater use of educational applications for instructional purposes. "Creating new classes and building new labs costs a lot; space is a constraint," he said. "The pressure is there, and we have discovered that this approach brings on some relief in this area."

"Some classes can be taught in a general auditorium, and the faculty assume that the students are bringing their own computers," Goay said. The marriage of BYOD and high-quality access to specialized, high-demand software is a promising alternative to late nights in the computer lab. That seems to be satisfying the requirements of students and university administrators alike.

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About the Author(s)

Curtis Franklin Jr.

Senior Editor at Dark Reading

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and other conferences.

Previously he was editor of Light Reading's Security Now and executive editor, technology, at InformationWeek where he was also executive producer of InformationWeek's online radio and podcast episodes.

Curtis has been writing about technologies and products in computing and networking since the early 1980s. He has contributed to a number of technology-industry publications including Enterprise Efficiency, ChannelWeb, Network Computing, InfoWorld, PCWorld, Dark Reading, and ITWorld.com on subjects ranging from mobile enterprise computing to enterprise security and wireless networking.

Curtis is the author of thousands of articles, the co-author of five books, and has been a frequent speaker at computer and networking industry conferences across North America and Europe. His most popular book, The Absolute Beginner's Guide to Podcasting, with co-author George Colombo, was published by Que Books. His most recent book, Cloud Computing: Technologies and Strategies of the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, was released in April 2010. His next book, Securing the Cloud: Security Strategies for the Ubiquitous Data Center, with co-author Brian Chee, is scheduled for release in the Fall of 2018.

When he's not writing, Curtis is a painter, photographer, cook, and multi-instrumentalist musician. He is active in amateur radio (KG4GWA), scuba diving, stand-up paddleboarding, and is a certified Florida Master Naturalist.

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