Friday, September 18, 2015

Desktops as a service?

In years past, we've managed the desktop as a box, a singular machine that users interact with through physical hardware. But we've moved on from this paradigm with our servers: for years, organizations have virtualized servers, and more recently shifted systems to the cloud through SaaS or Software as a Service. Yet the physical user computer remains, whether a stationary desktop or a more mobile laptop or tablet device.

At Morris, we have examined virtual application hosting, a variation of VDI. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is the practice of hosting a desktop operating system within a virtual machine (VM) running on a centralized server. VDI is a variation on the client/server computing model, sometimes referred to as server-based computing. Virtual applications are similar; the application launches on a centralized server, and displays on the user's desktop.

In my vision, we can drastically simplify our campus computer labs through virtual applications. We have several computer labs with separately-licensed software; our lab in Imholte Hall has GIS software, for example, because that it where they use it. The DICTION rhetorical analysis software only exists in the HFA Media lab, because that is where we teach rhetoric. The Science lab has other software to suit those disciplines' needs.

But why should we expect a student to go to one computer lab to do their homework, then pick up all of his or her belongings and move to another computer lab to finish their homework? It would make more sense for the student to stay in one computer lab, to have that option.

Cloud applications are one way that we provide this service to students. For example, we are a Google Apps for Education campus. Students can use Google Apps (such as Docs, or Spreadsheets, etc) no matter where they are. They can start a document, or pick up where they left off. This provides a great deal of flexibility for our students. Similar Cloud applications will continue to drive this.

Not all of our software can be moved to the Cloud. So that is why we look to application virtualization and VDI, together, as a way to expand opportunities for our users.

A recent article in the Summer issue of Ed Tech Magazine discusses this topic as dueling for real estate on users' desks. The article describes the growing trend of DaaS as offloading "the task of managing software and infrastructure to a cloud provider. Similarly, virtual desktop infrastructure offers institutions an option for hosting desktops in their own data centers." Together, Daas and VDI mean greater flexibility for our users, or our computer labs.

The article provides a table describing and comparing VDI and DaaS, which I will summarize here:
VDI DaaS
Tech: On-site. Purchase and run in-house. Hosted service by an outside provider.
Cost: Big up-front costs due to software and hardware. Could be high costs now, but costs may drop over time as more competitors enter the market.
Users: Used by institutions that wish to centralize and decrease IT support costs. Used by smaller organizations or institutions with straightforward setups and Cloud apps, with many BYOD users.
Pros: Enterprise has complete control of desktop. Proven technology. Enterprise-level security. Allows desktop customization. Quick implementations. No infrastructure required. Security managed by DaaS vendor.
Cons: Implementation cost can be too much. Added complexity of support. High usage events (logins, etc) can impact performance. Possible latency in data access. Not all applications can be DaaS. May have high latency. An outage at the provider means all users are down. Network is critical; DaaS organizations should implement redundant network.

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