Established in 1899, Northern Arizona University (NAU) is a public university located in Flagstaff, Arizona, offering undergraduate and graduate degrees in 150 different programs. Serving more than 30 locations around the state, the university is home to nearly 28 000 students, as well as 3 500 faculty and staff. NAU supports seven colleges within the university, including the College of Education and the College of Arts & Letters.
NAU’s admissions have grown 220 percent since 2003, and IT requirements have been expanding even faster, including the growth of a large online presence. “As the university grew, automation and efficiency became critical for us,” says Tobias Kreidl, academic computing team lead at NAU. “At the same time, the IT staff did not grow accordingly and our previous IT environment became more difficult to sustain.”
From the server perspective, Kreidl saw the advantages of moving to virtualization to consolidate physical servers, cut hardware and management costs, and enable his team to respond more quickly to changing requirements. The university was also faced with replacing hundreds of thin clients in its student labs to reduce costs, improve performance and support evolving graphics processing demands. For Kreidl, the goal was to find a server, desktop and application virtualization solution that would “lower costs and be easy to manage while being flexible, secure and reliable.”
Today, NAU relies on Citrix XenServer, Citrix XenDesktop and Citrix XenApp to deliver academic systems and services such as the registration system, library services, web services and software such as computer-aided design (CAD) programs. Citrix-powered desktops and applications are available to students and faculty throughout the university on thin clients from Dell, which populate the labs and other locations such as the library and the registrar’s office.
The flexibility of the Citrix solution opened up new possibilities for the NAU academic computing team, who quickly saw the ability to support specialized kiosks, print release stations and unique lab units with Citrix desktop virtualization. “We even converted a dental lab to use thin clients mounted under the dental chairs,” says Kreidl. “Using XenDesktop, we have the flexibility of connecting all sorts of USB devices in pass-through mode, so we outfitted the thin clients with probes that let students take videos or pictures of their patients' teeth.”
Server, desktop and application virtualization have been a boon in many ways to NAU. For example, the university has experienced significant cost savings in power and cooling, hardware, and operations. “By implementing Citrix XenServer, we have seen a 5 to 1 reduction in physical servers required to support our systems,” says Kreidl. “We’re now 80 percent virtualized; and with the excellent scalability of our Citrix solution, we can continue to grow our capabilities while keeping our physical footprint small and cost-effective.” Together with the thin clients, Citrix solutions also help Kreidl’s team support the university’s green initiatives by reducing power and cooling requirements, while improving the ability of students and faculty to employ technology in their studies and research.
The ability of his team to accomplish far more in less time is another important benefit. “We manage hundreds of virtual machines with fewer resources than before, and creating virtual machines is a snap. In fact, we can create more than 300 virtual machines in two hours’ time,” says Kreidl. “The bottom line is that easier, faster management frees us up to focus on delivering new capabilities, such as the dental lab.” Kreidl also says that once the infrastructure is in place, it runs itself, reducing the amount of time NAU staff maintains the infrastructure. Better yet, NAU has experienced less downtime since moving to Citrix virtualization solutions, improving business continuity to its user community.
In addition to Citrix Support, another advantage is the open source community around Citrix XenServer and the ability to interact with developers and users to improve the software. “Not many companies are as willing to engage with the public and take our input as seriously as Citrix does,” says Kreidl. “The synergy is amazing and is one of the most enjoyable aspects of my job.”
The Citrix solution gives students and faculty the flexibility to get their work done on any thin client on campus. “Students can access their preferences, profile information, programs and files wherever they happen to be,” says Kreidl. “They can even manage their print jobs using quick response (QR) codes with their smartphones.” Students queue print jobs wherever they are working and then later connect to a print station using a QR code to retrieve printouts, which are automatically billed to students’ university accounts.
Uncovering new ways to make the student computing experience better is always top of mind for the academic computing team. Currently, Kreidl’s team is in the midst of a pilot study to boost the graphics processing capability of the university’s thin clients with virtualized graphics processing. A number of departments make heavy use of graphics-intensive software such as ArcGIS and Google Earth and programs by Autodesk, and while the Citrix XenDesktop–powered thin clients have improved the performance of such applications compared to the previous system, Kreidl wants to take performance to the next level. The university is also looking to begin providing XenDesktop sessions via portable devices such as smartphones and tablets, giving students the flexibility to work anywhere, on or off campus, without physical or time constraints.
With the flexibility and manageability of the Citrix solution, Kreidl and his team have the building blocks and the time to experiment on ways to achieve their goal of IT innovation within the university. “With Citrix, we can create amazing things that are more powerful, efficient and cost-effective than ever before,” he says.
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