Tips for getting your virtual lab off the ground

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By Donna Gorday, Director of Client Services, Academic Information and Communication Technologies at the University of Alberta

The Virtual Computing Lab (VCL) pilot at the University of Alberta has students and staff quite excited about the opportunity to access specialized software remotely. It gives students the convenience of using course software to complete assignments at home '€” or anywhere in the world for that matter '€” as long as they have a computer device and a decent internet connection.

Given how new this technology is, and how it is a transformative change from the way most institutions and students think about sharing software, there are a few technical and behavior lessons to learn, particularly when it comes to your institution'€™s software licensing agreements. Here are my best tips for addressing these:

Registering a study time

For starters, students may need to rethink how they plan their studies. Rather than just go to the lab and start working on a whim, students need to reserve a spot in the virtual computer lab ahead of time. Suffice to say, there are enough spots to go around, and we have found this system works well for varying studying schedules. While the concept of a reservation system is a new idea to most, once explained, the barrier is really quite small.

Plugging in cameras or smart phones

Another challenge with VCL we have identified is the interaction of the host computer systems with external devices. Flash drives and other simple storage devices work seamlessly. But recording devices, such as cameras and smart phones, can conflict with iTunes or other programs that are installed locally. In these situations it is best to teach students to download the images to their own computer, and then transfer the files to the virtual image for further processing. This does add some extra steps, but once mastered, it is really pretty intuitive and avoids a lot of trouble in the back end.

Licensing the software

Software licensing models from different software vendors can present new challenges for the university'€™s IT department when it comes to a virtual computer lab. It is important to determine the model that fits best for VCL and your existing contracts.

The majority of smaller software vendors are open to licensing VCL on a concurrent use basis, or by the number of students enrolled in a class. Experience with software contracts is a skill you will want on your team if you are planning to deploy VCL.

Microsoft licensing is one of the most complicated pieces to resolve, and costs will depend on the type of contract you have with the company. Most Microsoft contracts require you to pay a yearly virtual desktop access (VDA) fee and a server connect fee, as well as buy an operating system license for every person using the system.

Microsoft is always modifying its licensing for campuses. The University of Alberta is in discussions with Microsoft to allow for special licensing specifically for VCL.

Discussing licensing options with any vendor can be delicate. Most of them are concerned about the number of people who can access the software, and how this access is controlled. They are obviously worried about the idea of hundreds of students being able to access their software with only a minimal number of licenses purchased.

The Virtual Computing Lab has a couple of features to help convince your vendor that this will not happen. For one, you can limit the number of machines a student can load at any given time. Also, VCL uses an IP address locking mechanism, which ensures that each reservation can only be accessed from one IP address, and the instance can only be accessed by one Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) session, at a time. These features confirm that only a certain group of students can access the software, and that access cannot be readily shared.

This tool can also limit the number of users and sessions allowed per image. For example, say 30 students are registered for a course. The software image can be restricted to only these students, and the number of sessions allowed to run at one time can be limited to 10. In this scenario, you may be allowed to purchase 10 licenses instead of 30.

Going forward, we hope to further negotiate all our software licenses, to ensure we are making the most efficient use of them.

Cost Savings and Mobility with VCL

The virtual computing lab software licensing may be more complex than a traditional computer lab environment. The upside is two-fold. First, a traditional computer lab requires space, cleaning, desks, desktop computers, not to mention lighting and heat. Since VCL is hosted on a cloud in a datacentre, these costs can be minimized. If you find that VCL can completely replace your physical computer labs, your institution will regain valuable space on campus. Second, students can use their own laptops or any mobile device that supports RDP. Because many students already use their own devices on campus, this makes a lot of sense for them. This also means they can complete their homework assignments anywhere.In my next blog, I will provide more details on options such as Linux, as well as outline the software applications that work well on VCL, and ones that don't.