Computer science department transforms in-classroom and external computing environment with new virtual desktop infrastructure

With the help of Connect Services, the Wayne State University College of Engineering’s desktop IT support team, the Department of Computer Science recently completed a significant computing renovation that features a state-of-the-art virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), which will allow the college to make significant strides in functionality, versatility, administration and maintenance of its in-classroom technology systems.

VDI is a form of desktop virtualization that allows end users to access a desktop operating system inside a virtual machine hosted by a central server cluster. This allows Connect Services to configure and manage software offerings to computer science students and faculty remotely without the need for visiting physical workstations in classrooms.

cs-lab1“Prior to VDI, software distribution could take up to 24 hours of continuous downtime to load the computers with a fresh copy of software required for teaching in an average classroom of 25 to 30 computers,” said Andrew Murrell, associate director of information technology for the College of Engineering. “With VDI, the same process has been reduced to under 45 minutes, with zero classroom downtime.”

Murrell also noted that a future software update, which will be implemented before the start of the winter semester, will allow for near instantaneous software distribution so faculty and instructors can request software changes and have them fulfilled while class is still in session.

The most visible change is in the eight computer science computer labs on campus, where 230 obsolete computer workstations were replaced with zero clients, a low-power embedded device that allows access to the VDI-hosted virtual machines as if they were a physical computer in front of the end user. Other upgrades included new chairs at each workstation and larger LED monitors.

The new system is largely the result of hard work put forth by Murrell and Jeremy Nofs, a systems integrator for Connect Services who was integral in architecting and implementing the system. They have spent over a year virtualizing the labs using VMware Horizon View software.

“This technology acts like remote access but functions more like you’re sitting at an actual computer,” said Murrell, who noted that one of several advantages to implementing this system is the hands-off nature when it comes to students’ devices and hardware while still allowing for the same in-classroom computing environment from anywhere with a broadband internet connection.

The administrative strain of updating and installing software has been drastically reduced. College of Engineering students frequently require the use of complex software to complete their coursework. The Connect Services IT staff would previously receive at least 1,000 student software requests per semester, which would each take up to three hours to fulfill. Additionally, compatibility issues with student computers are a thing of the past, and the university will enjoy significant savings over time in terms of energy and labor with this new system.

The computing hardware for the entire VDI system is located in a space comparable in size to a filing cabinet. The power of more than 230 computers is contained in four multi-core, high-powered server nodes. Should one of the four nodes fail, the infrastructure is designed to have redundancy so that the computing environment will continue to function as normal.

Students and faculty will reap many benefits from the VDI system, which is certain to enhance distance learning and online curricula. Students will also appreciate the fact that “an $1,800 laptop and a $200 laptop can do the exact same thing through this system,” said Murrell. Referring to internet speed requirements for using the system outside of the university’s network, “If your internet connection at home can run Netflix, using the system will give you the same computing experience you receive in the classroom,” Murrell said.

Feedback from computer science students has been positive. “I really enjoy the chairs in the lab on the third floor of State Hall,” said junior Armando Arteaga. “Programming for long hours can really take a toll on your spine if you don't have the proper equipment and postures.”

“The environment is very clean, open, and I actually like completing my work in there,” added senior India Owens. “The renovations show me that department cares about providing its student with the tools they need for their education.”