Virtual desktops: Reality at CU-Boulder

June 12, 2014 •

Staff in the University of Colorado Boulder’s Housing & Dining Services are not fooled by the name “virtual.” They fully understand that virtual desktops provide a very real and familiar computing experience. This hot emerging technology is gaining workplace traction and CU-Boulder’s Housing & Dining Services is demonstrating that it can present big advantages for the university, even if it happens to be technologically quite different from traditional computers. 

“In a typical computer, all the complex computing operations are going on in the processor, the drivers and the storage right there inside your computer,” explains Robert Dixon, IT Director in Housing & Dining Services. With virtual machines, all of that actual computing happens in a data center somewhere far away from the user, and it doesn’t matter what kind of device the user does the work on, as long as they have a screen and a network connection to our very fast machines.”

Instead of a traditional desktop computer, Dixon’s team has provided each of the 600 staff with a device known as a zero client.

“A zero client is essentially just a tiny circuit board in a box. There’s not much more to it than that,” Dixon says.

These zero clients cost the university approximately $280 each and they use 11 watts, roughly the equivalent of a night light—only a fraction of the energy used by traditional computers.

“We were also able to implement this virtual desktop environment without requesting additional funding outside of the normal renewal and replacement processes,” Dixon adds.

It’s easy to get caught up in the numbers—how much money, energy and waste the university can save with virtual desktops. But perhaps the most exciting feature is that employees with these devices can customize their computers, and they can log into that desktop anywhere, anytime and on any device. This means that there is no longer a need to install software or clients on individual machines, so staff can now access large, critical business database systems and files in a way that wouldn’t have been possible from an iPad or laptop.

Curt Huetson, director of Facilities Planning, Operations and Project Management for Housing & Dining Services, says, “the ability to access my desktop and files from anywhere is incredibly useful. It really increases my staff’s productivity immensely.”

Paula Bland, director of Residence Life, explains that virtual desktops played a critical role in the university’s response to the flood last September.

“During the flood when Residence Life staff were unable to come in to their offices, virtual desktops enabled us to access all of the critical business systems from homes or wherever we were.”

Bland says that staff were able to locate empty spaces on campus so students could move out of flooded housing, while other staff used these systems to locate information about students so they could respond to parent concerns.

Dixon explains that these devices are also much easier to support remotely.

“The zero client is solid state so my team saves significant time and money by not having to run around from building to building when someone needs help.”

So why aren’t these virtual desktops found everywhere?

“The reason people don’t do this is that it’s still fairly new, and you can make some pretty expensive mistakes. We worked through a lot of problems and figured this out over the years,” says Dixon.

Fortunately, with a lot of patience and fine-tuning, he and his team came up with the right technological formula for success. Now, after two years in production, virtual desktops have continued to gain traction in workplaces everywhere, and Dixon believes this can be a scalable computing approach.

“So far, we’ve been able to deliver every service that our users have needed over virtual desktops,” says Dixon. “When they think of something that my team hasn’t delivered yet, we find a way to make it work for them. Clearly virtual desktops are the future!”

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