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Preparing for the virtual future

College considers plan to change PCs to terminals, moving software and systems to servers instead of desktops

Virtualizing servers will simplify computer labs at UCC, if implimented.
Photo provided by UCC
Virtualizing servers will simplify computer labs at UCC, if implimented.

Managing software installations and computer lab updates on campus may get faster and cheaper soon if a concept to virtualize labs works out.

The idea is called “thin-client architecture” and will treat PCs in labs more like terminals. The “thin” means that the lab computer itself runs only a few applications; software and data is stored instead on a central server and executed over an intranet or the Internet.

Because the PC no longer does as much processing, a much cheaper desktop package can be purchased.

The PC also will not need to be updated as often.

Virtualization of software on the UCC servers would allow the college to keep current PCs instead of upgrading.

“Keeping the PCs current is not such an issue as keeping the software current,” Dan Yoder, interim information technology director, said.

The virtual server system can be established for each campus lab and workstation.  If software needs to be added or updated on a workstation, the process is much simpler because the software is directed or re-directed off of the server rather than installed or reinstalled on a PC.

“As you virtualize a lab, you determine what software needs to be available in that lab, and you install it on that virtual server one time. So if we have to update a lab, we don’t have to go to all the machines in that lab; we just update it on the server,” Yoder said.

Virtualization will also help balance the traffic between student labs and the college business system. Students using computers at school would be contained on one server while college management applications such as registration, admissions and the like would be contained on a different server. This would help to keep data traffic jams to a minimum.

Yoder has been gathering numbers of computers as well as their ages in all labs on campus. With this data, he will be able to assess the benefits of virtualization versus updating physical equipment.

“We are in the planning stage; no final decisions have been made,” Yoder clarified.

Updating the software on the server will help save money when physical computers need updating. “We wouldn’t be buying a whole PC, we would be buying a screen with a keyboard that has a video card and a processor built into it. That’s much cheaper than buying a PC,” Yoder said.

The money that is saved with virtualization would help update technology more often than the current tri-annual or longer cycle.

This savings would also free up some funds needed to switch to a new learning management system.

The decision, which should come about in the next six to eight weeks, is partially pending on the route taken to replace Angel, the current learning management system.

A task force is working on moving from Angel to a different LMS such as Blackboard or Canvas.

“One of the issues is the task force for the LMS replacement paused in their process. We really need to know which direction we’re going to go. If we are going to go with Blackboard, that’s one set of costs. If we are going to go with Canvas, that’s a different set of costs,” Yoder said.

Whether or not Yoder can move forward with plans to virtualize labs is primarily dependent upon these costs.

Yoder, however, identifies the importance of faculty and students having quality equipment to teach and learn on.

“We are gathering the data, we are evaluating the strategies so that we can best inform them [college administration] which direction would be most advantageous for the college,” Yoder said.

If the college is unable to move forward with virtualization at this time, Yoder will renew aging equipment in the computer labs. “I will do that as quickly as I am able to with the resources that I have,” Yoder assures.

The plan is projected to take 18 to 24 months to convert all labs to a virtualized environment if the college does proceed with obtaining the software and licensing.