Three Lessons You Can Learn from Top Universities When Considering the Cloud

by Victoria Rege

Sometimes called the last stop for young people before joining the “real world,” universities face unique challenges.

Consider their IT departments. They need to install, maintain and upgrade the design and engineering software programs on hundreds of workstations for thousands of undergrads working in dozens of labs.

But that’s getting easier now, with the ability to connect these devices—even those with sophisticated 3D applications—to the cloud anywhere there’s network access.

That’s as real world as it gets.

From Roger Williams University, with its renowned architecture program, to Villanova University, a leading regional school outside Philadelphia, to La Cité, one of Ontario, Canada’s top-ranked schools, universities are offering lessons in adopting virtualization that any business can learn from.

Roger Williams University NVIDIA GRID
Virtual by design: Roger Williams University adopted NVIDIA GRID to fuel its renowned architecture program.

And they’re doing it with NVIDIA GRID technology, which virtualizes the GPU to deliver true PC-quality graphics from the cloud to any device.

So, break out your notepad. Here are three lessons universities can teach us regarding virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

1. Embrace BYOD

The PC is as fundamental to college today as the No. 2 pencil and blue book exams were years ago. But provisioning every student and faculty member with a standard laptop—let alone a high-powered workstation—is an expansive, expensive proposition.

With virtualization, schools can adopt a “bring your own device” policy. Students connect with the device of their choosing, even low-power ones, wherever they have access to the network—in class, from the dorm room or on the bus ride to campus. And data and applications remain secure within the data center. There’s no need to queue up behind a specific workstation, or rely on limited classroom or lab hours.

“If we come to the end of a lab session and students still have work to finish, they can simply turn off the virtual workstation, move to another room, reconnect and continue,” said Francois Barberie, a computer-aided design instructor at La Cité’s architecture program.

At many schools, student demand for workstation access outpaces capacity. With VDI, resources can be more efficiently scaled because each local machine doesn’t require its own installation of compute-intensive applications with advanced 3D graphics.

In combination with BYOD, universities can repurpose legacy desktops or install so-called “zero-client” machines, with little hardware beyond a mouse, keyboard and monitor. Eliminating noisy, hot and power-hungry desktops from labs has its own benefits, including freeing up valuable physical space.

2. Keep IT Simple

With VDI, IT departments can save big on time and cost thanks to simplified IT management and maintenance.

At La Cité, for example, IT staff once kept a thousand workstations running across 65 computer labs. Each machine required different applications depending on project and class requirements. And hardware or software issues often required onsite attention.

La Cite Students NVIDIA GRID
Advanced placement: With NVIDIA GRID in the data center, universities can deploy virtual offerings that are easier to manage and maintain.

Rather than replace costly, aging workstations, universities can deploy virtual offerings that are easier to manage and maintain. Virtual machines are a snap to provision, and software packages are easily updated centrally for all users in one go.

Computer crashes can be resolved with a quick system reboot—no visit from IT required. And in the event of a power failure, entire classrooms of students won’t lose all their work.

Getting started with GRID can be easy.

“We were planning to upgrade our existing servers anyway, so why not add a couple of NVIDIA GRID K1 cards per server while we were at it?” said John Powell, desktop management administrator at Villanova.

And both VMware and Citrix tailor their offerings for the education market.

3. Maintain Performance

GPUs are synonymous with performance. However, traditional virtualization offerings don’t have the graphics processing horsepower to keep up with design and engineering software.

“As soon as we had more than 8-10 people connected, the frame rates in 3D renderings would just go way down and get jumpy,” said Ryan Tiebout, systems operations manager at Roger Williams University, in Rhode Island. “The software applications became very clunky. Students weren’t able to maintain a good project flow.”

NVIDIA GRID vGPU technology virtualizes the GPU in the data center, allowing up to eight to 16 concurrent users to share one GPU. Students can access graphics-intensive applications like AutoCAD, SolidWorks or SketchUp in or outside a lab and see the same high level of performance on any device.

NVIDIA GRID K2 graphics cards support up to 64 virtual machines per system for the most demanding 3D applications and power users, like architecture and engineering students. NVIDIA GRID K1 graphics cards support up to 144 virtual machines per system for applications requiring less graphics processing on more basic applications like Microsoft Office and web browsers.

With applications in the data center, access can be expanded to more students and faculty. There’s no need to find a workstation with a particular software package installed on it. Users simply need to log in and get working. Log-in times for new sessions also shrink.

Plus, instructors who teach multiple classes, each with specialized applications, can maintain multiple virtual workstation images and conveniently switch back and forth as needed.

With VDI, these universities are letting students work with the most sophisticated software on the market, and in a work environment they’ll increasingly encounter post-graduation.

Check out this video from those who led the transition to VDI at La Cité: