Leading engineering school re-energizes computer labs with Citrix XenDesktop

California Polytechnic State University (Cal Poly) is a nationally ranked, four-year, comprehensive public university located in San Luis Obispo, halfway between San Francisco and Los Angeles on California's Central Coast. This distinctive learning community offers academically focused students a hands-on educational experience that prepares them for today's scientific and technical world. The school serves a student population of 20,200, with a faculty of 1,300 and an administrative staff of 1,500. It has been ranked the nation's No. 1 master's-level public university by U.S. News & World Report and the No. 3 public university for alumni earnings by Forbes.com.

The Challenge: Renewing aging desktops in cutting-edge computer labs without breaking the bank

Among the core facilities at Cal Poly College of Engineering is a cluster of computer labs where students gain hands-on experience with professional software tools. By late 2013, desktop systems in several of these labs were nearing mandatory retirement age. Department heads could have committed more than $300,000 to yet another hardware refresh cycle, or discover a more cost-effective and performance-enhancing alternative in virtualization.

The Solution: Virtualizing desktop systems and applications, repurposing hardware for greater cost savings, performance

Working with IT consultant CPI Solutions, Cal Poly network analyst Tony Sawa opted for an expandable 100-seat desktop virtualization environment for the 2014–2015 academic year. Sawa chose Citrix XenDesktop as the virtualization platform because of its superior support for advanced 3-D graphics applications and tight integration with Citrix NetScaler application delivery controllers. Another incentive: Sawa's 18 years' experience using and managing Citrix solutions. "I manage all these servers myself," says Sawa. "It's important to me to use equipment that I'm very well-acquainted with." For the university's engineering labs, Sawa purchased 100 XenDesktop Platinum Edition licenses and Citrix XenApp for application virtualization.

Dedicated hardware includes four Dell PowerEdge R815 servers for the desktop virtual machine pool and seven Dell R515 servers for app virtualization. A Nimble network-attached storage array supports both server farms through a 10 Gigabit Ethernet backbone, while two Citrix NetScaler MPX 8200 appliances provide load balancing and application delivery control. All hardware components are scaled to support up to 500 concurrent users.

To date, seven compute labs, used by the aerospace and biomedical engineering schools, have been fully refurbished, with many of the existing desktop systems repurposed as thin clients. XenDesktop ensures access to full system images, while compute-intensive engineering apps no longer run locally. These are now virtualized on the central XenApp pool and delivered to lab desktops as services.

Key Benefits

Reducing the capital drain of a desktop refresh by nearly $30,000 while bolstering performance

By virtualizing its engineering lab desktops and applications using Citrix XenDesktop, Cal Poly was able to repurpose 288 existing PCs as thin clients while achieving performance improvements equal to or greater than a more expensive hardware refresh. Cal Poly has realized a savings of nearly $30,000 by virtualizing its desktops rather than performing a complete desktop overhaul. The virtualization pilot also put in place a central datacenter infrastructure capable of supporting 500 concurrent total users, nearly doubling capacity.

Accelerating new application delivery with easy administration tools

The move to Citrix XenDesktop has simplified administration and helped Cal Poly reduce deployment time for new engineering applications. "I don't need Symantec Ghost or Altiris {deployment solutions] or any of those imaging services anymore," says Sawa. "I can have a desktop up and running for a student or faculty member in less than five minutes. I can reconfigure a lab in the time it takes to install an application."

Delivering a superior user experience with virtualized desktops and applications

The most significant benefit realized in the project is the improved user experience achieved by moving all application and graphics processing off of local client systems and into the datacenter. Citrix XenDesktop includes HDX 3D Pro, a set of technologies that enhance the delivery and performance of graphics-intensive applications with deep compression and quality-of-service controls, multiple network optimization techniques, hardware-level GPU acceleration, and native support for OpenGL and DirectX apps, with no need for special hooks or coding. "I think the maximum load we've had so far has probably been 80 concurrent users running [design software tools] SolidWorks and AutoCAD, and we have never seen a performance issue," says Sawa. "XenDesktop delivers finished images faster than any physical desktop we have ever used."

Looking Ahead

Sawa plans to add 200 XenDesktop licenses for the coming academic year. He's also upgrading Citrix XenDesktop to version 7.6 and Citrix NetScaler to version 11. "I really want the HDX Insight tools that version 11 offers," he says. "I want to know exactly what resources an application is using. I want to be able to tell the faculty precisely what it will cost to add a new application, or a new lab."

Other goals include remote access to virtualized desktops and applications, and eventual expansion to serve all 1,000 users at Cal Poly College of Engineering. "XenDesktop is definitely proving to be a viable technology for the campus," says Sawa.

I think the maximum load we've had so far has probably been 80 concurrent users running [design software tools] SolidWorks and AutoCAD, and we have never seen a performance issue. XenDesktop delivers finished images faster than any physical desktop we have ever used.
- Tony Sawa

Network Analyst

Cal Poly College of Engineering

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I don't need [deployment solutions] Symantec Ghost or Altiris or any of those imaging services anymore. I can have a desktop up and running for a student or faculty member in less than five minutes. I can reconfigure a lab in the time it takes to install an application.
- Tony Sawa

Network Analyst

Cal Poly College of Engineering

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Key Benefits

  • Reduces the capital drain of a desktop refresh by nearly $30,000 while bolstering performance
  • Accelerates new application delivery with easy administration tools
  • Delivers a superior user experience using virtualized systems and applications

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