Prior to VMLogix, the RIT Department of Networking, Security and Systems Administration was at the point where it had to decide between refreshing its current hardware and supporting its VMware environment at a cost of around $80,000, or moving to a cloud environment.
The Department of Networking, Security and Systems Administration at RIT teaches courses related to computer networking, system administration and computer security. In the past, RIT had as many as 80 machines in each computer lab which it divided so that students could work in groups of two, and use four individual PCs per group. Using this set up, the students ran exercises setting up and deploying services on the computers.
To deploy this environment required the use of two separate networks: one to move images between a storage array and one as a production network. This allowed students that didn’t complete their work during the average two hour class time and/ or wanted to save their work to come back to the lab later. To develop the network, the department used Symantec Ghost to make images and store them on a file server in the lab. As the images increased in size, it began to take students as long as 20-25 minutes to get their environment up and running.
“Local storage became a real bottleneck for us because we just couldn’t get the throughput we needed from the local drives in order to move these images around. With this situation, the files would fail – causing huge problems and lost time for the students,” said Charles Border, Ph.D., associate director of the School of Informatics at Rochester Institute of Technology.
To address the problem, the university deployed Windows terminal servers and ran VMware Workstation on each server. Using these workstations was the university’s first venture into virtualization on a mass scale. Since that time they have migrated to an architecture with four dual quad core Xeon servers attached to a twenty terabyte SAN in a single data center located in Rochester where it runs VMware ESX and VMware Lab Manager.
“The workstations worked well, except then students wanted to be able to access the machines remotely and we didn’t have the technology to support it,” said Border. “It was at that time that we began to look for a lab management solution that would better meet the needs of our students in Rochester, as well as in our international programs around the world.”
Turning to VMLogix – LabManager for Global Lab Support
RIT needed a solution for its labs and knew that the cloud was where they needed to go for the flexibility and cost-effectiveness needed. As part of RIT’s research, Border attended VMworld and signed up for the VMLogix mailing list from which he learned more about virtual lab automation and its benefits. Initially, the institution bought VMware Lab Manager and ESX servers, running them on four dual quad Xeon Sun boxes. It also had a twenty terabyte SAN providing storage. Once again, this setup worked for a while, but when the university began to grow its international programs it became evident that the current solutions were unsustainable because they couldn’t provide enough compute capacity for all of the lab/computer exercises.
When VMLogix released a cloud version of its flagship product, Border began to research the product. In July 2009, RIT’s Department of Networking, Security and Systems Administration deployed VMLogix LabManager – Cloud Edition (LabManagerCE) for its lab automation and centralization capabilities, as well as its higher education pricing structure.
“VMLogix LabManagerCE running on Amazon Web Services makes a lot of sense for us because it provides flexibility and means we don’t have to worry about providing compute capacity,” said Border. “Before VMLogix, we could use the capacity provided by the Amazon cloud, but we would still need something to create and manage our lab environments.”
VMLogix LabManager – Cloud Edition at RIT
RIT uses VMLogix LabManagerCE in the systems administration and database labs located in Rochester, as well as the Dubai- and Dominican Republic-based labs which support master’s students. All of the students access virtual labs running on AWS images using the VMLogix LabManagerCE Web console. The key feature RIT has benefited from is the ability to generate standard images. The Department of Networking, Security and Systems Administration uses between four and 10 different images that the faculty configures into a generic image and then deploys to all of the department students at once. The amount of work required to provide multiple students with multiple images and then trying to support them all tends to really slow things down. VMLogix enables RIT to customize images and set them aside for all of the students to use at once, so that each student can start out with the same version, but can then work and continue to access their unique four to 10 images.
Prior to VMLogix, the department was at the point where it had to decide between refreshing its current hardware and supporting its VMware environment at a cost of around $80,000, or moving to a cloud environment. However, since deploying VMLogix LabManagerCE, RIT has experienced a number of benefits and been able to save the $80,000.
“By moving to a cloud environment we were able to empower the students to make the decisions about how much money to spend on technology,” said Border. “It really changes the previous economic model we used to fund our labs and to do our work and has made us much more efficient.”
In addition to the cost savings, RIT has recognized significant time savings. Now, when a student begins a class, instead of spending 20 minutes retrieving the correct lab image, it takes less than five minutes to power up a machine and access the correct AWS instance.
“There’s been a significant decrease in the amount of time it takes students to get to work, which has traditionally been a major concern for us,” said Border. “With VMLogix, we wanted to decrease the percentage of time students spend in the lab waiting for the machines to be ready for them to start work. Previously, we had to go through and prepare each one of the images. With 300 students in each class, virtual lab automation enables us to save around 1,500 hours per class per year.”
With VMLogix, RIT has also been able to improve its international programs by providing virtual labs in the cloud and ensuring that funding of labs is not an issue. “VMLogix LabManagerCE has made it possible for us to pursue our global ambitions because it breaks the bonds of latency,” said Border. “Previously, the further away a student was from a computer, the longer it would take for them to interact with that computer. Having the ability to leverage the Amazon cloud’s multiple locations, and use LabManagerCE, means we can easily deploy and access lab environments in different parts of the world.”
Mostly importantly, VMLogix LabManagerCE has enabled the department to provide a better experience for its students. RIT is focused on providing a hands-on education program with students often participating in full-time, paid work experiences directly related to their course of study and career interests.
“In higher education we’re always running around trying to keep our hardware refreshed and it’s nearly impossible to keep up and foresee all requirements,” said Border. “With VMLogix, we can focus our attention on what we do best, which is teaching students. LabManagerCE allows us to provide a world-class, hands-on education to our students in an affordable way. It has also allowed us to avoid tuition increases for our students in computing while still providing them with state-of-the-art technology.”
Future Projects at RIT
In current RIT training labs, students use desktops or, if they wish to login remotely, their laptop. They can use Mac or Windows machine or almost anything that has a browser in it. Eventually, the department would like to transition to thin clients because it no longer needs as much compute capacity on the desktop, which is one of the most expensive components of its infrastructure. As a next step, RIT wants to thin down the desktop as much as possible. VMLogix LabManagerCE gives the institution the tools it needs to make that goal possible.
RIT would also like to be able to control the network infrastructure to deploy services in a closed environment. One of the university’s challenges going forward is to mimic a closed local area network in the AWS environment. Once the department solves this problem, Border expects to have a solution that will work for many universities in the country and also around the world. Border concludes:
“VMLogix LabManagerCE has a great democratizing effect on higher education. In the past, we were able to provide server infrastructure to our students – although not on a long-term basis because that was unsustainable. We were in a similar situation to many smaller universities across the country and across the world that are not able to provide these environments. Having virtual lab software available in the cloud gives every university the opportunity to offer a high performance, highly configurable environment to its students, which was previously impossible. LabManagerCE is a game changer for higher education.”
VMLogix Case Study – RIT delivers a world-class computer lab and saves 1500 hours in provisioning time per class annually using VMLogix LabManagerCE – http://www.vmlogix.com/resources .