Georgia Institute of Technology, commonly known as Georgia Tech, is one of the top public institutions in the nation, supporting more than 21 000 students, most of whom are enrolled in engineering, computer science and mathematics programs. Located in Atlanta, the university serves as one of the largest industrial and engineering research organizations in the South and is a centerpiece of Georgia’s economic development strategy.
Georgia Tech has long required that its students own computers—typically laptops—so that it can better serve their educational needs. However, when it came to accessing the graphics-intensive applications required by many science and engineering courses, the student laptops weren’t capable of running these applications due to hardware requirements, licensing restrictions, or simply that these were Windows-only apps not designed for MacBooks. So students could only use these applications at a limited number of computer labs where they were installed. Not surprisingly, this created long wait times for workstations during certain periods. It meant that students were often traveling across the urban campus late at night to visit more than one lab to use various applications. Adding to these challenges, the existing labs required round-the-clock physical security and an administrator’s presence during operating hours. Plus, they consumed an enormous amount of power, required constant cooling and occupied valuable real estate within the limited downtown Atlanta campus. Finally, computer lab refresh was a problem, and software licensing had become an issue for the university’s growing population of Mac users.
With student enrollment growing and lab complexity on the rise, Georgia Tech knew it was time to reassess its computer lab strategy. For answers, the administration turned to desktop and application virtualization—changing from physical lab workstations to a virtual lab (called Vlab) that the students could access remotely via their laptops. This way, students could use virtualized instances of the applications and desktops previously only available at the physical lab sites. By taking advantage of Citrix XenDesktop with HDX 3D Pro technology and NVIDIA’s GRID technology for GPU virtualization, the university was able to consolidate physical workstations, virtualize graphics-intensive engineering and mathematics programs in a central datacenter, and deliver those programs to students with the same high-end 3D-graphics rendering experience they had in the physical labs.
Seven years after the Vlab’s successful initial deployment, Georgia Tech decided to further optimize its architecture. Although it had already gone through a number of iterations, the architecture still employed the original “condominium model” of a common shared infrastructure hosting a variety of virtualization products, versions and hypervisors. Now it was time to streamline. To simplify management and reduce costs, Georgia Tech consolidated all application and desktop virtualization onto the FlexCast Management Architecture of Citrix XenDesktop 7,5. It also consolidated hypervisors, using Citrix XenServer GPU pass-through and virtual GPU technology for 3D graphical applications and Microsoft Hyper-V for standard workloads.
Today, Georgia Tech provides more than 1 600 virtual desktops and 50 shared session servers through Vlab—and not just for the College of Engineering. Indeed, the list of academic departments sharing the virtual desktop infrastructure now includes the library, College of Business, College of Science, College of Liberal Arts, College of Architecture, College of Computing and more. In a virtualized environment that includes Dell PowerEdge R270 servers running Citrix XenServer with NVIDIA’s GRID technology for GPU virtualization, Vlab runs everything from popular computer-aided design and manufacturing (CAD/CAM) applications such as AutoCAD, SolidWorks, NX, PTC Creo and CATIA to more specialized engineering domain-specific software.
Providing the same computer-lab experience to all students, regardless of location or device, the Citrix-powered Vlab has helped serve a rapidly growing and mobile student body by making powerful applications accessible to learners throughout the world. “With this technology, instructors are able to provide the same experience for students who are thousands of miles from campus,” says Didier Contis, director of technology services for Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering. “As a result, they can focus more on instruction and less on the logistics of making applications and assignments accessible to students beyond the confines of the classroom or campus.”
Vlab has been able to reduce IT management overhead and cut costs by consolidating all of the university’s existing Citrix environments into a single XenDesktop 7,5 pane of glass.
No longer confined to the physical lab’s environment or operating hours, Georgia Tech students can now access the advanced graphics-intensive 3D software programs on the server, when and where they need them, from any laptop—no advanced GPU capabilities required.
Both students and faculty are benefiting from the faster service times facilitated by virtualized applications and desktops. Explains Contis, “If all of your resources are aggregated, and you layer some sort of virtualization on top of it, you're creating a pool of resources that you can quickly repurpose. Then, during the summer semester when you don't need as many machines to support regular instruction, you can create some large virtual machines with a lot more memory and CPUs and assign them to graduate students to support their research activities.”
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