Apps Delivered and the Lessons Learned
Digital workspaces are catching on across the nation, particularly on many college and university campuses. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, or VDI, allows students to leverage their own devices and log in to their desktop, accessing all the applications they need remotely. Using a laptop, tablet or smartphone, students can connect into the virtual system and receive a customized experience based on their major, courses and activities.
Leonard Niebo, Director of Enterprise Infrastructure at The College of New Jersey (TCNJ), recently shared TCNJ’s experiences during a track session at EdgeCon 2019 titled, “VDI in the Cloud: Apps Delivered and Lessons Learned” wherein he detailed the school’s initiative of implementing secure, cloud-based access to all students, faculty and staff. “We serve over 7,300 students across seven schools,” Leonard says. “The role of Enterprise Infrastructure — which includes servers, telecom and networking — is to evaluate the trends and initiatives that are already in progress and create a core infrastructure foundation to build upon.”
Developing a VDI environment at TCNJ was a significant game changer for the school and has transformed how students and employees operate on and off campus. “VDI helped us address many challenges, while meeting several strategic goals,” says Leonard, “One of those challenges and goals included providing a secure, consistent experience across all user environments.” TCNJ made great strides in advancing the technology of the campus, while learning many important lessons along the way.
Aligning IT with Strategic Goals
“Our top strategic goal was to build, operate and maintain a safe, sustainable and accessible physical and technological infrastructure that supports high-caliber learning. Basically, we wanted to make TCNJ more accessible in terms of IT,” Leonard explains. “TCNJ places a high level of importance on continuing to provide an exceptional educational experience in and out of the classroom, without burdening future colleagues with unmanageable maintenance down the road.”
To fulfill IT’s commitment to providing an exceptional educational experience, Leonard says, “The ultimate goal was to provide what IT referred to as triple A: anytime, anywhere, any device access. Most importantly, we wanted to create a foundation upon which to build anything we need in the future,” states Leonard. To accomplish TCNJ’s objectives, action steps included improving the communications and feedback loop between the campus community and the IT division, creating a fully wireless, ‘bring-your-own-device-ready’ campus, as well as increasing the interoperability of IT systems. Actions also included server consolidation, network infrastructure upgrades and security access control and cameras.
Additionally, TCNJ wanted to include future construction and renovation into the bigger IT picture. “Originally after a building was constructed and everything was completed, IT would come in and punch holes in the walls and run cable. Now our team is involved from the very start and we sit down at the table as a part of the E-Plans or electric plans.”
Leonard says TCNJ has had to adapt their way of thinking to always be looking toward the future. “Our thought process going forward when making any decision is to take into account who is our customer,” Leonard explains. “The students are our customers and these ‘cloud kids’ today have never known an academic life without a device, Wi-Fi or access to Google. Institutions have a different customer base than five years ago and we have to make sure we are meeting the current needs of our students and providing necessary access and availability to resources.”
As TCNJ progresses into the future, the IT team will view all new projects and initiatives from a ‘cloud-first’ perspective, where the IT team will determine if a cloud option is viable and cost-effective. If a cloud option is not possible, then a virtual server solution will be explored. “All our future projects will be viewed by three guiding questions,” Leonard explains. “First, is the solution scalable? Can the solution be scaled up or down to serve the strategic goals of the college? Next is the solution agile, meaning do we have the resources —both human and technical — in place to pivot on short notice if there is a change in direction? And lastly, is the solution nimble? Can we move in a different direction to align with how technology trends and innovations are evolving?” For example, Leonard describes TCNJ’s networking site for wireless and creating a new way for students to log into the wireless network as well as register their devices. “Each student has a maximum amount of eight devices they can register and we quickly realized that some students have nine, ten, twelve different devices,” says Leonard. “Students want the same experience they have at home and to be able to use all their devices. Our IT team has to be nimble and ensure our wireless capabilities evolve to keep up with constantly changing technology.”
Virtual Desktop Infrastructure — Then and Now
About five years ago, TCNJ had an initial foray into VDI with kiosks located throughout campus that allowed students to access resources including registration and class schedules. “There wasn’t any thought regarding students having their own devices and how they would want to access information from their dorm room, for example. We thought we could provide kiosks instead, which shows our focus was more on the operation side, not really the academic side,” Leonard reflects. “At the time, we had 350 user licenses and about a 10 percent usage rate at any given time. There were maybe five to ten kiosks in use during a concurrent period of time. The technology didn’t really take off because we realize now, it didn’t align with the core goals of the college.”
“The original VDI project was strictly a technology project and while the project didn’t fail, it just wasn’t used,” Leonard continues. “The platform wasn’t used because it had no tangible purpose. We had to reset the deck on VDI and think differently as we headed into the future.”
TCNJ changed their approach on VDI based on several crucial factors. Foremost, wireless access became easy to use and available on 90 percent of the campus, both indoors and out. Additionally, the college identified their key priority of the VDI project was to align with the triple A approach: anytime, anywhere, any device access. “This time, our team knew the operations side and academic side needed to work in tandem to ensure all the needs of the college were met,” Leonard recalls. “We had to meet the demands of the growing population of ‘cloud kids,’ so instead of focusing on desktops, IT focused on application delivery.”
The new VDI project involved a cloud-first approach, which was browser based, did not have hardware and was easy to use. In developing a new plan, IT eliminated the need for a software download and focused on a mobile-centric technology. “We hit 90 percent of what we needed for software,” Leonard says. “Software included Word, Excel, PowerPoint, for example. We tried to hit the 90 percent sweet spot to serve the majority of software needs while staying within budget.”
In the beginning, we didn’t have a good handle on how many people would be using this technology,” Leonard continues. “TCNJ has about a 10,000 user base including undergrads, grads, staff and faculty. We didn’t have a benchmark of how many users would be requiring access, so we needed an easy way to buy additional licenses without buying hardware. I needed to be able to make a phone call, add more licenses and then people are able to log in the next day. Luckily, Edge is an approved state contract vendor which made purchasing additional licenses much easier.”
Researching and Testing
An important part of the VDI project for TCNJ was researching vendors, setting up demos, creating proof of concepts and gathering feedback. “We had about 50-user proof of concepts with some faculty staff and students. We used two different vendors and collected feedback from the test group of which one they liked better. From an IT standpoint we wanted to be nimble and keep things moving, but we had to be patient during the three- to four-month vetting process. Comparing apples to apples was difficult in this case because of the different license agreements and models,” Leonard explains. “Every meeting, there was often a new licensing model. We had to come up with a kind of equalizer to help compare vendors, especially on the procurement side.”
Determining a Budget
The next important step in TCNJ’s project was choosing a cloud. “You have Google Cloud, Azure and AWS,” Leonard says. “Selection of a cloud service was the point where solutions got separated and we explored single cloud versus multi-cloud. We needed to be able to spin up resources if necessary and maintain and add VDI licenses.” Creating an anticipated annual budget for providing VDI services proved challenging due to the cyclical nature of college. Usage drastically fluctuates throughout the year as students’ schedules change due to orientation, holidays and finals. To account for these swings in usage, TCNJ looked at the peaks and valleys and hit the middle. “The nice thing with using the cloud is we can spin down resources. For instance, at the end of May and after graduation, everything slows down in June and July. We can spin down all those resources — let’s say in AWS — and instead of having ten servers out there, I can spin down nine of them and put them in sleep mode. This lowers the overall cost and I can adjust servers as needs change,” Leonard explains.
Choosing a Vendor
TCNJ selected VMware Horizon to be their VDI vendor after their product and services showed they would be able to meet many of the goals and requirements of the college. “The differentiator was the total cost of ownership based on the concurrent user licensing,” Leonard says. “This form of licensing made budgeting much more straightforward as well as easier to determine our overall cost. Plus, there’s just one price that includes all the cloud licensing, so we wouldn’t be hit with any surprises. VMware Horizon offered a scalable and agile approach, where we can add more users if needed or create multi-instances for different needs.” The VMware Horizon system knows which applications students are likely to need and presents those applications in a consolidated format. “For example, there’s an app menu for the generic user, an app menu for a science user, one for a math user and so on,” Leonard explains. “Students get different applications based on who they are and what they do, creating a personalized experience.”
Insights and Lessons Learned
“TCNJ only started using VMware Horizon about a year ago,” Leonard says, “So solutions that were non-contenders when we initially conducted our VDI solutions research have addressed their issues. I would tell other institutions to avoid getting locked in and don’t do a multi-year, five-year contract with one vendor. Give yourself the flexibility to adjust vendors and requirements if you need to pivot back to being scalable, agile and nimble.”
With any new technology, there are adjustments and adaptations needed from both a human and technology aspect. “We lost a lot of granularity of features in the cloud,” Leonard explains. “Features of the on-premises software, like some of the check boxes and radio buttons, are not part of the cloud. However, at the same time, the VMware Horizon engineers are responsible for maintenance and updates, which frees up our team to do other things.”
In the beginning, the support matrix navigation was difficult to set up and the progression took a couple months of TCNJ working with VMware Horizon during the proof of concept to streamline the process. Now, TCNJ has a great local VMware Horizon support team to help with any issues that arise.
Looking Toward the Future
According to feedback, the browser experience is good, but the app experience is better, so TCNJ is working with VMware to better align these experiences. VMware is also working to help improve directory integration, involving how applications are available to students based on their major, class and additional preferences. Another important piece of the VDI puzzle is security. “One of the things that is always top of mind is security and personally identifiable information for employees and students,” Leonard says. “Instead of students carrying around laptops, important information is out in the cloud. So if a device is lost or stolen, none of that data is on the device. Plus, we use a two-factor authentication to log in. This method gives us a better layer of security.”
Other important foci for TCNJ going forward involve Cumberland County College (CCNJ) and providing a traditional student experience for those individuals who commute to campus, live close by or are remote. VDI helps bridge the gap between on-campus and off-campus students. With such technology, all attendees can have the same easy-to-use access, giving them the resources and support they need for a successful college experience.
Cloud VDI solutions are evolving at a staggering rate and the VDI landscape is quickly becoming more mainstream as schools look for ways to gain cost and management efficiencies, while boosting student productivity and flexibility. As trends evolve, more and more institutions are likely to adopt desktop virtualization technologies, which in turn, will transform IT workloads, shape the future use of computer labs, and open new avenues for higher learning.
To learn more about TCNJ’s use of VDI in the Cloud, Len Niebo may be reached via NieboL@tcnj.edu.