Fulfillment and inclusion via cloud implementation at a Rhode Island school.
GUEST COLUMN | by James Galib
At Roger Williams University (RWU), we are committed to educating our students in a technological environment that mimics what they will find in the real world. Our architecture program in particular is known for blending rigorous technical and design curricula with a well-rounded liberal arts foundation that prepares those students for successful professional careers.
Building an infrastructure that opens up a full range of high-end performance to our students without the need to purchase and maintain thousands of workstations is a huge win.
The increasing shifts toward computerized design, BYOD, and telecommuting led us to seek out a method of giving architecture students the flexibility to work from any location on any device, even while using graphics- intensive applications like Autodesk’s AutoCAD® and Revit®, and Adobe® Creative Suite® 6. The tremendous variety of devices on the market coupled with the need to control access and distribution of the applications for licensing reasons made implementing a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) the clear choice for achieving these objectives. In a VDI, the server hosts the desktop, runs the applications, and processes the graphics. The end-user device simply acts as a terminal, transmitting commands and receiving fully-rendered pixels.
Virtualization and the ability to remotely access a desktop and applications have been around for a while. The problem is that none of these solutions can handle intense graphics, because they do not include GPU support. Instead, they rely on the server CPU to handle the processing and rendering. Thus, while implementing a VDI held out the promise of delivering the real-world experience our students need while eliminating the clutter and expense of workstations, the lack of graphics support was the Achilles heel. Frame rates plummeted below usable levels as soon as more than 8-10 people connected to the VDI—hardly conducive to effective learning. We knew that VDI was the way to go, but trying to find a workable model for implementation became more than a little frustrating after a while.
Then our systems integrator introduced us to NVIDIA GRID technology, which provides virtualized GPUs to relieve the server CPU from those duties and deliver workstation-like graphics performance in a virtualized environment. We rolled out Dell PowerEdge servers running Citrix’s XenServer with NVIDIA’s GRID technology for GPU virtualization, and—in my opinion—saved the entire project.
Roger Williams built out a custom VDI system that we named “rCloud” that features Dell EqualLogic storage, Dell PowerConnect switching, and the aforementioned Dell PowerEdge servers running a total of twelve NVIDIA GRID K2 boards through Citrix XenServer. The vGPU technology built into GRID allows up to 8 to 16 concurrent users to share one GPU, meaning that rCloud can support between 96 to 192 concurrent graphics users in its current form.
Our IT Group saw immediate improvement with the graphics performance on virtual machines. Even better, our students responded enthusiastically to the ability to access graphics-intensive applications like AutoCAD inside or outside the lab while seeing the same high level of performance on any device. They report that rCloud is very easy to access and runs very smoothly, even on lower-end devices. Thanks to NVIDIA GRID, the VDI at Roger Williams delivers a huge value-add to our students and will allow them—and us—to save money on hardware and software in the long run.
We are now following up on the great success of this first VDI deployment by rolling out rCloud to the Engineering department, with the ultimate goal of making it accessible to all students. Right now, 1,000 RWU students (about a quarter of the student body) have access to rCloud with varying levels of graphics power allotted based on their area of study. We plan to use a mix of NVIDIA GRID K1 and K2 boards to accomplish this. The K2 boards will be dedicated to graphics power users like the architecture and engineering students, while the K1 boards will ensure that any student can still experience seamless graphics performance even on more basic applications like Microsoft® Office and Internet Explorer.
Achieving the vision of building a VDI that opens up a full range of high-end performance to our students without the need to purchase and maintain thousands of workstations is a huge win for everyone, as is allowing students to work on their familiar devices without any compatibility concerns. It is also deeply satisfying to know that even our students with the most limited budgets will receive the exact same level of service as everyone else.
James Galib is the IT Director for Roger Williams University in Bristol, Rhode Island. He is responsible for all operational activities of the IT department and for providing direction and support for IT solutions that enhance mission-critical business operations.