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It makes sense to virtualize university computer labs

By Barnali Ganesh ·
Virtualization is an elegant way to do all-pervasive change management in the IT world. Virtualization abstracts a complete computer system to a file. So any change to the hardware and software configuration of the machine gets translated to a change in the file. Using standard file change-tracking systems, we get to track and control anything and everything that changes in the computer system.

University computer labs are the bed of experiments and research. Experimentation requires trying out things and making unconventional changes. Some of these changes may be irreversible or catastrophic, and it is a tedious job to restore the system to the last known functional state. Virtual labs solve that problem effectively. Users get full control of a set of pre-configured virtual machines from a centrally managed repository/library. These machines can be used for any kind of experiments. In the event of machine crash/corruption/virus-infection the copy of the same machine with the last known good state is available from the library. This saves significant time and effort to reinitialize the machine and resume experimentation.

The key components of such a virtual desktop infrastructure are:

1. Virtual lab server: This is the virtual lab management software that drives the virtual lab infrastructure. It has either a built-in repository of virtual machines or connects to an external storage device that stores the virtual machines used for the lab. The primary function of the server software is to launch the virtual machines as requested by the user.

2. Virtual lab hosts: These are the server class machines that are used to run the virtual machines. The screens of the VMs are exported to the user terminals.

3. User terminals: This can be anything ranging from a thin client, old desktops, laptops etc. The only requirement is of a browser. The virtual lab management software exposes a web portal to the users. Any operation regarding getting the VM, using the screen, copying, storing the image on the server etc is possible using the web portal.

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For IT administrators with a lot to deal with in today?s lab environment, here are some of the benefits of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI):

Management: User desktops are created from pre-created templates, in a few clicks on the browser. Deployment of virtual desktops is lightning fast as opposed to using imaging technology such as Norton Ghost. This gives IT helpdesk great relief from the conventional system where they have to physically move to individual desktops for software issues. The time and effort reduction for desktop administration has a significant impact in bringing down the bottom-line for the IT budget of any lab.

Security: Security is a key factor in rolling out VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure). With VDI, one can lock down the desktop (virtual image) from external devices or prevent copying data from the image to the local machine; Even if the device is stolen, the information is protected.

Complete traceability: in normal desktop environment, multiple students share a lab computer. In the event of any data / configuration issues or tracing any illegal content, it is almost impossible to identify that with any user. In the VDI environment, typically one user will ?own? one or multiple virtual desktop images. Any issue/s with any one of them can be directly traced back to the corresponding user. This results in significantly reduced liability to the lab admin and management.

OS migrations: Prior to VDI, for migrating the OS on users desktops, one would have to look at their equipment and most likely upgrade hardware, memory, disk space, etc. With VDI, one can just push out a VM image with the OS installed from a central location for the users to ?clone? and use as they like.

VDI library: A central library of desktops and server images can serve all the hardware and software needs of the lab. Since these images are centrally maintained, it is possible to use secure/encrypted locked down images.

Snapshots: With VDI, it is possible to roll back desktops to any previously known/saved states. This feature, and it allows lot of flexibility and experimental capabilities to the end users.

Green labs: Usage of thin clients for user desktops is recommended for any standard VDI environment. The power consumption of at standard thin client is 1/11th of that of a desktop. Hence VDI is a great way to reduce the carbon footprint while saving operational expenses in terms of electricity costs.

Colama (colama.net) , a virtual lab management solution using underlying hypervisors likes KVM and / or VMWare is crafted to suit the university lab environment. It enables universities to reduce their carbon footprints while drastically reducing their capital and operation expenses.

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