For the professors and students that rely on the computing labs at McMaster University, life just got a bit easier. After summer break, returning faculty and students received a pleasant surprise when they logged into the newly refreshed lab environment. They were greeted with cutting-edge technology, and a vastly improved user experience.
In the months prior, the IT team was hard at work putting together the plan that would transform the student labs. McMaster University was looking to convert their labs from a physically constrained desktop system to a virtualized environment where the data is centralized on a server and no longer tied to a physical asset. Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) has been steadily gaining momentum with education institutions and was part of the McMaster University Technology Services (UTS) department’s overall plan to reduce support costs and achieve economies of scale.
With both the hardware and software coming up to end of life, we were looking to invest in a technology for the future, which would give us flexibility to grow as demands change
A great deal of planning went into ensuring the project was a success. A steering committee that encompassed stakeholder participation from across the McMaster community was put in place. While this was clearly an IT-led project, Kearney and his team worked diligently to recruit input from all groups affected by the new technology, including representation from the Registrar’s Office (the group responsible for booking the labs on behalf of the faculty), members from faculty that use the labs in their teaching, as well as participation from the McMaster Students Union. Each person on the steering committee represented a faculty or department and was responsible for taking the information back to their own groups and collecting feedback, creating a trickle down effect. “One contributor to success was that we had non-technical stakeholders included from start to end,” said Kearney. “Our users defined their requirements and Scalar worked with us to architect the best technology solution.”
After we were awarded the VDI project, our project manager drafted an implementation schedule and worked with the McMaster project managers to ensure the plan aligned with the university’s tasks. “The coordination between the two sides was critical – it was important to not only build out the plan from Scalar’s perspective, but to gain an understanding of McMaster’s commitments to their community of stakeholders,” said Gary Luk, one of our IT Project Managers. “McMaster had a communications plan and additional steps as part of their operationalization process – all of this was integrated into a master schedule.”
Weekly meetings, a shared online collaboration tool, as well as a dedicated physical workspace where the technical implementation team could work together were all contributors to success. The workspace – a student lab that wasn’t in use – provided a direct connection into the lab environment and a place where they could conduct testing and share work in progress.
Everyone knew we were working on incredibly tight timelines and there wasn’t any extra time for unforeseen issues. Scalar’s response to any problems was quick and effective. If we had any issues, they worked hard to get us through them
Ease of management has been touted as the prime benefit for the technical staff responsible for the labs. “With the new solution, we have one management console where we can package application layers and OS updates and push them out,” said Cleland. The new virtual desktop system also provides a test environment where everything can be physically tested before being pushed to production. “Our labs are open from 8:30 am to 11:30 pm which made it difficult to push out updates in the old world. If we wanted to reimage or reinstall, we had to wait until after hours to access the desktops.” Desktop provisioning, application layering and image management now takes place at the server level, vastly improving daily operations.
The benefits don’t stop at the technical staff. Students and faculty have reported positive feedback, recounting a much quicker response time.
Our users report that performance is amazing - with 96 different application suites in the labs, the login time in the old environment took 4 ½ to 5 minutes. It is now cut down to about 1 ½ minutes
Old computers have been replaced with larger 22-inch monitors with Windows 7 and Office 2010, meaning the university’s software applications can now run current Windows 7 compatible versions.
McMaster considered the student computer labs a pilot project for VDI. The 300 seats in total served as a testing ground for the viability of virtualized desktops across the university campus. “The response has been so positive that we now anticipate rolling out VDI into the administrative areas of the university,” said Kearney. “This has huge potential for economies of scale and reduced labour costs. We see this as a major stepping stone to being able to support our BYOD (bring your own device) strategy down the road.”