In-Depth

A Virtual Desktop Education

This University of Maryland admin got tired of fixing end-user computers. So he ripped them all out and replaced them with little silver boxes.

It was Dell Inc. that pushed Jeff Cunningham into the world of desktop virtualization. Specifically, Dell Optiplex 270s.

Cunningham, the director of Information Services for the University of Maryland's College of Agricultural and Natural Resources, says his department received some funding about five years ago, and bought roughly 60 of the Dell desktops.

A Support Nightmare
Soon after, the nightmares started. "We had problems: defective motherboards, defective hard drives, video-card problems," says Cunningham, a 25-year veteran of the department. "We were constantly repairing them," he remembers.

Cunningham is one of just two IT pros in the department, and they had a hard time keeping up with the constant hardware and software problems of their desktop environment. Putting out fires all day left their fingers singed, and Cunningham decided after a few years of getting burned that it was time to explore the benefits of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

The Quest for a Better Way
A little more than a year ago Cunningham's quest began. He looked at Sun Ray thin clients and other solutions, but one day came across a VDI startup vendor called Pano Logic Inc. Pano's solution, a zero-client silver box he could hold in his hand, "really intrigued me," he says.

The timing was perfect -- a year ago, the University received unexpected money, and some of that ended up in his department. Cunningham ordered five of the Pano devices and took them for an extended test drive. Impressed with that small trial, he decided to take the big plunge. "I jumped in because I had to spend the money" or lose it, Cunningham says. "I'm glad we did."

The Upgrade
Last June saw the major Pano conversion: about 70 Pano devices are in place now, representing 70 percent of the approximately 100-node network. The staff is completely on Pano, and about 25 percent to 30 percent of the faculty is, as well. Moving the instructors to VDI has been more challenging. "Some faculty won't give up their desktops and notebooks," says Cunningham, who still believes that resistance will be broken down over time.

The back-end hardware is minimal, given the size of the network: two Sun Fire X4600 servers, each with four AMD dual-core processors and 64GB RAM. Along with the Panos and the servers, Cunningham bought a storage-area network (SAN). He says the total cost for the infrastructure was about $45,000: $15,000 for the SAN, $15,000 for the servers and about $15,000 for the Pano devices.

It's money well spent, Cunningham believes. Using those funds on traditional desktops, the College could have bought about 60 PCs and servers. The difference is that in a few years, only the two servers will have to be replaced or upgraded, instead of a host of thick clients. In addition, patching is now a simple task. Both factors are huge in terms of cost savings and workload for the tiny staff.

Management is done through a combination of VMware and the Pano Management Console. The department uses VMware Infrastructure 3.5 on the servers; Cunningham estimates about a 50/50 split of management duties between VMware and Pano.

The Pano devices come with interfaces for a keyboard, mouse, monitor and Ethernet, along with a USB port. Setting up a new user or new Pano device is easy, says Cunningham; it's about 10 minutes' worth of work.

Jeff Cunningham; Photo (C) Katherine Lambert "Some faculty won't give up their desktops and notebooks."
Jeff Cunningham, Director, Information Services, University of Maryland

The End-User Experience
Of course, a VDI solution has to work well for the end users to have any chance of success. In this case, that's happened, Cunningham says. "I think complaints [in general] have gone down. Calls [complaining] that 'My computer's not working' have gone down."

There have been issues, however. "End users say that the start-up time's a little slower. There have also been USB problems, especially with older USB printers," Cunningham relates. Additionally, printers and other devices sometimes don't appear on the desktop the way they should.

Those issues have led to some grumbling, especially among the faculty, some of whom had the Pano devices installed as desktop replacements and then asked for their desktops back. "But it's been less than I thought," Cunningham says.

The department has also had problems with a chief complaint of VDI: poor video. Fortunately for Cunningham, the clients are mostly used for programs that don't utilize much video. He also mentioned that a recent 2.5 update from Pano has cured many of the issues with things like USB support and video lag and latency.

Photo (C) Katherine Lambert
Pano Logic Inc.'s Pano devices are the cornerstone of this University of Maryland lab.

Satisfied Students
The students, for the most part, have been happy with the Pano's performance, and VDI in general. Geret DePiper, a second-year Ph.D. student in Agricultural and Resource Economics, had been using the Panos for four days straight after his laptop went up in smoke because of the demands he puts on it.

"It's been a good experience; no complaints. It's a little slower than my laptop," DePiper says, but he expected that. Each Windows XP desktop client is allocated one CPU and 1GB RAM to use. With VDI, each user has his own unique operating system and applications installed on a virtual machine (VM); the administrator decides the breakdown of resources assigned to each VM. DePiper's laptop had more processing power and RAM installed, so naturally it would be faster.

MATLAB Massacre
Most students in the College use a program called MATLAB, from The MathWorks. MATLAB is an extremely high-end, processor-intensive program. It's the kind of program that stresses ordinary computers; in fact, it's so demanding that some admins would hesitate to run it in a VDI environment.

It was MATLAB that killed DePiper's laptop, and it can make the VDI experience less than optimal. "I would like [my VDI client] to be faster. It's noticeably slower [than my laptop], but not crippling," he explains. On the other hand, DePiper's laptop wasn't working, while his VDI desktop was.

MATLAB has crashed DePiper's laptop many times, and can do the same to the VDI client. But there's a crucial difference, the student says. When his laptop crashed, "I lost data. When the thin client crashed, I didn't lose data."

Simone Pieralli is also a second-year Ph.D. candidate, in the same major as DePiper. He has a Dell laptop with 1GB RAM, and prefers using the Pano. Over time, he says, the Pano response time has improved, to the point that he estimates it's "50 percent faster" than his laptop.

Photo (C) Katherine Lambert
Pano devices from Pano Logic Inc. use only 5 watts of power, compared to 150 watts for a typical desktop.

"It's been a positive experience," Pieralli says. "I've had some problems with start-up," he adds, but he still prefers using the client to his laptop. "Running MATLAB, my computer can run for about 20 hours before it overheats. The Pano is the best for stability."

These types of stories are why Cunningham wanted a VDI solution in the first place. Ultimately, it's about the students getting their work done.
But there are other advantages to VDI beyond the user experience. A big one for Cunningham is the time he and his co-worker have saved from not having to service individual desktops and laptops. He estimates that since installing the Pano devices, their administrative burden has been reduced by about 25 percent. "And I expect that number to increase over time," Cunningham says.

Going Green, Saving Green
Using VDI has put the Agriculture College ahead of the game in another way as well. The University of Maryland is drawing up plans for reducing energy usage among the various schools and colleges within the system. Cunningham's department has moved quickly in that direction with the Pano devices, making the transition, when it becomes a mandate, a non-event for him. The Panos draw five watts of power each, he says. That's 30 times less, per client, than the 150 watts of power used by a typical desktop.

The success of his VDI implementation has convinced Cunningham that it's the future of desktop computing for business as well as education. "I think people will start moving to it. Once they get in and start seeing the benefits of virtualizing servers, they will see the same benefits for the desktop environment."

He also doesn't think it's years away from happening. "Because of the whole green initiative, it will happen sooner than later," Cunningham says.
For himself and his department, that VDI future is now. "There's no going back [to the old way], unless there was some kind of uprising among users," Cunningham says. "From my point of view, from a management point of view, it's a home run."

About the Author

Keith Ward is the editor in chief of Virtualization & Cloud Review. Follow him on Twitter @VirtReviewKeith.

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