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Virtual Desktops – an Exciting Emerging Technology Platform for Academic Computing

by Kelly Walsh on May 15, 2011


This post was last modified on January 2 2012.

With virtual server technology gradually becoming mainstream, the next big leap is the virtual desktop.

Many academic institutions are getting on board with the use of virtual server technology, and I’m proud to say that The College of Westchester is no exception (more on that in a minute). Right behind the implementation of virtual private servers is the next big leap in virtual computing technologies – the virtual desktop.

virtual desktop computing imageVirtual Desktop technology has been around in various forms for years, but it’s only gained mainstream momentum in the business world in the last few years. Academic institutions tend to lag the business world in adoption of many technologies, and that is certainly the case with virtual desktop tech, which is limited but slowly growing in education.

First, Virtual Servers
Many colleges and universities either have already, are currently, or have plans to make the move to some level of virtual server technology. At The College of Westchester, we are just completing the migration of our entire server farm to a consolidated set of servers running VMware software. VMware’s virtualizations tools are the leading virtual server technology on the market today (with offerings from Citrix and Microsoft’s gradually gaining some ground in recent years).

In our migration, we virtualized about 20 physical servers on 6 new Dell servers designed specifically to host our virtual server environment. Coupled with a new Compellent SAN and higher capacity tape library, we now have a highly redundant environment that is built for growth (we’ve already got about a half dozen new servers we’re going to need to put up in the next few months, which the new farm will be able to easily accommodate!).

We’ve improved on both server recovery and data recovery capabilities, we’re using less space and less energy, and we can put up a new server in hours (versus the weeks it took to spec out, procure, rack, and prep a new physical server). I intend to write a post in the near future with further insights into this highly successful project.

Next, Virtual Desktops
With our Virtual Server migration effort nearing completion, next we’re going to sink our teeth into Virtual Desktop technology. Unlike Virtual Server tech, for which there are only a few major product offerings, there are many options for virtual desktop technology, especially in terms of how you implement the client computing devices.

The benefits of virtual desktop computing can include the following:

  • Lighter client: Institutions can procure smaller, simpler, easier to maintain (and often somewhat less expensive) client devices, or they can extend the life of existing equipment, since hardware requirements for the virtual desktop client are generally much lower than requirements for traditional desktops.
  • Reduced application licensing fees: Virtual desktop technology positions organizations to move away from having to over-license products and install them on every desktop, just so that select users can access them when needed; rather, the required number of licenses can be purchased and made available where and as needed, with a cap on maximum consecutive uses to ensure adherence to the scaled down licensing. This can result in significantly reduced licensing requirements, and significant savings.
  • More flexible application rollout: Upgrade or roll out applications on the virtual desktop servers, and they can be available to all clients who need them. No more visiting each workstation to perform upgrades, or “pushing” upgrades and installs out to hundreds of end points.
  • Enhance remote access capabilities: This technology makes it possible to let remote users access applications that are centrally hosted. This can make it much easier to provide remote students access to applications without requiring them to purchase and install the applications on their computers, and without requiring your support team to help troubleshoot these remote applications.
  • Virtual computer labs (and more): As education moves online a little more every day, providing access to computer software doesn’t have to be limited to the traditional physical computer lab. Virtualization is also encroaching on other types of traditional labs (such as the virtual biology labs discussed in this post).

The “Cons” of Virtual Desktop Technology
Of course, like any technology, virtualized desktop tech has its downsides, which I am still learning about. As stated in this Computer World article, “businesses are finding that the benefits of hosted virtual desktop technologies are more nuanced [than the benefits of virtual server tech]. The advantages may be harder to quantify and harder to justify based purely on traditional ROI calculations.”

Following are a few considerations to be aware of:

  • The initial investment to move to this technology can be significant.
  • You must be connected to the network for (most) virtual technology to work (there seems to be some effort going on to provide some sort of offline functionality for the virtual desktop, but this is relatively new and evolving).
  • Not all applications lend themselves to virtualization. Apps requiring high resource commitments can be trickier to virtualize and get good performance from, and some may be rather impractical to deliver virtually.
  • Another consideration, which can be both a positive and a negative, is that there are many options to get informed about and choose from.
  • This technology is not yet as mature as virtual server technology, so you may face a higher degree of  “loss of value as soon as you drive it off the lot” syndrome. In other words, as the technology evolves, there will probably be a lot of new possibilities on the market that might make you wish you had waited a little longer to move to this technology.

How About Your School?
Have you gone virtual at your school yet? We’d love to hear about your project or plans. Of course, I’d also welcome input from others who are more familiar with this technology than I am, so feel free to comment and share your insights! Thanks.

Related Posts (if the above topic is of interest, you might want to check these out):
5 Internet Technologies That School Administrators Need To Know About
Virtual Labs – Award Winning Virtual Dissection Apps
Google’s Liquid Galaxy Project – too cool not to share


Kelly Walsh is Chief Information Officer at The College of Westchester, in White Plains, NY, where he also teaches. In 2009, Walsh founded He frequently delivers presentations and training on a variety of related topics at schools and conferences across the U.S. His eBook, the Flipped Classroom Workshop-in-a-Book is available here. Walsh became the Community Administrator for the Flipped Learning Network in June of 2016. In his "spare time" he also writes, records, and performs original music ... stop by and have a listen!

[Disclaimer: The opinions expressed here are my own, or those of other writers, and not those of my employer. - K. Walsh]

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