The Evolution of VDI as a Crucial Technology in Higher Education – What’s next?

In Part 1 of this blog series, we talked about desktop virtualization in terms of its ever-changing role in solving new problems for Higher Education: lab systems management, student productivity and flexibility, a bridge between wealthier and poorer students, lab consolidation, and finally looking forward to “21st Century Collaboration Spaces.” Now, let’s discuss the future – what new challenges in Higher Education can VDI as a technology solve? Here are a few ideas I think are interesting.

Hyper-converged infrastructure VDI appliances (HCIA) are becoming increasingly attractive for campuses that want to set up distributed compute environments. For example, to give the Law School a separate IT environment from the Business School, etc. A few years ago, the cost per seat of VDI made smaller deployments too expensive, and we saw a lot of schools try – unsuccessfully in most cases – to corral their departments into a centralized solution.

Today, the “building block” approach of HCIA opens up the technology to departments that want to virtualize a few labs, then pay as they grow. Plus, the ease of the software GUI’s that run from a single management console on HCIA’s means schools no longer require an IT professional with a “PhD in VDI.”

Because an HCIA allows nearly frictionless scaling without the budgetary impact of previous hardware upgrades or expansions typically required for a VDI project, schools can use this technology for distance learning programs. Schools are opening up new avenues of learning (and sometimes new revenue streams), via distance education programs and Massive Online Open Courses (MOOC’s).

Hosted by leading institutions such as Stanford, MIT, Yale, Harvard, and at least 563 other universities, the number of massive open online courses has exploded in recent years.  Offering up software for such programs via desktop virtualization environments allows schools to avoid the hassle of shipping and tracking software licenses, and allows students to leverage their own hardware.

However, the number of students enrolled in these courses can swing up and down much more rapidly than in a traditional on-campus course. If the number of students signed up online is much greater than anticipated, hyper-converged infrastructure appliances allow for flexible scaling and ease of virtual desktop deployment. This allows schools to offer more distance learning to more students at a lower cost.

Looking ahead, I’ve seen a few forward-leaning IT administrators try to provision all of their desktops from the public cloud, saying, “We don’t want to be in the desktop management business. We want to be in the education business.” Unfortunately, most of these valiant efforts have been limited by a handful of issues that I believe will be solved in the next five years.

The first is how you protect critical data, like HIPAA data leveraged by a medical school, in a public cloud environment. While there are work-arounds to allow you to do this today, they are not elegant solutions. I suspect a much better answer is going to be the developing technology set around hybrid cloud architectures where sensitive data is stored and protected locally.

The second issue is around software application licensing. Five years ago, most ISV’s did not have concurrent licensing, required by most Higher Ed institutions for virtualizing lab computers. This meant that there was a huge software licensing “tax” on going virtual, and my team was involved in an Educause working group related to this issue. Today this issue is already mostly resolved, but there are a few notable stragglers among software developers that are preventing deployments of the full complement of academic software required by students. I suspect this problem will resolve quickly.

The third issue is that, because campuses do distributed IT purchasing, cloud solutions that reward scale can be cost prohibitive. Even in schools where the CIO has issued a centralized mandate around cloud adoption, IT professionals have lacked a charge-back system that would effectively administer a fair distribution of costs across multiple departments. Once a solid solution for multi-tenant cloud / departmental charge-back takes hold, this will drive more large campuses to serve up their desktops out of the cloud.

And, once Higher Ed does wholeheartedly embrace the cloud for more than just storage or Office 365? I see an interesting opportunity for universities to take advantage of the ability to “burst” up and down rapidly. Higher Ed, in particular, has very seasonal needs. What if a school could provision for a baseline level of activity, then burst-up each semester during midterms and finals?

However these trends evolve, it is clear that Higher Education has already derived great benefit from desktop virtualization technologies, with huge impacts to student work-study habits, the use and purpose of computer labs, physical plant allocation, and IT support workloads. I am excited to look back in five more years and see what else in Higher Education has changed as a result of this ongoing transformation in desktop computing.

About the Author: Erica Hilgeman

Erica Hilgeman serves as the Marketing Manager for Field Marketing in Dell’s Cloud Client-Computing group, and specializes in solutions for Government and Education. In this role, Erica works with salespeople and customers across the US, to define and enable Dell’s virtualization solutions. Erica joined Dell in November, 2000, after a number of years spent in Marketing at other technology firms, including Canon and, via an agency, IBM. She has spent her 12-year career at Dell in Marketing roles close to our customer base, focusing initially on Medium Business and Dell’s growing Channel Program. The past 7 years have brought Erica to Dell’s Public business, as a Desktop & Notebook Brand Manager for Education and Government. Erica’s current focus on Desktop Virtualization came out of numerous interactions with customers expressing interest in this technology. Erica has a Bachelors Degree in International Relations from Stanford University, and lives in Austin with her husband and son.