One day, legacy technology was an issue. The next, a new Citrix platform for remote-work was in place. The IT Team was ready – without even knowing COVID-19 was coming.
Ten years is the equivalent of several lifetimes in the technology arena. Now, in today’s volatile global climate, even ten days can drive a world of change. For Post University – founded in 1890 and situated in close proximity to the likes of traditional institutions such as Yale University and Trinity College – eleven decades has meant lots of operational and management changes.
More recently, it’s meant changing technology. Dave Aldarondo, manager of network services, has been there for one of those decades and has managed many initiatives for this, Connecticut’s first online university. One of his team’s most recent and perhaps most impactful projects was completed overnight!
Post University was the first higher education learning institution in Connecticut to offer online programs for students. The vintage 2006 early online environment was based on VMware technology. “Managing the legacy VMware environment became really problematic,” Aldarondo notes.“ Optimization for Microsoft Windows 10 was nonexistent and the technology was costly.” He adds, “After years of using VMware, a change in university management, and a careful review of other options, we chose to replace VMware with Citrix.”
When the team made this decision, it considered the fact that Citrix Cloud soon would be released. The IT professionals really liked the idea of shifting the responsibility of the management plane off of university IT staff, especially given the size of the team.
An IT team of only three people supports faculty, staff, and on-campus and online populations at Post. “Trusted partners bring us over that resources gap, and we use our partners very strategically. For example, one of them does password reset-level support for us,” Aldarondo notes. “Our trusted advisors from CPP teamed with us to deploy the versatile Citrix platform that eventually will serve the needs of employee, faculty, and student populations,” he summarizes.
The first phase of the Citrix environment went live late in 2018. “Once we implemented Citrix, we never looked back,” Aldarondo declares. “We onboarded 450 Enrollment Center Associates – admissions counselors, advisors, financial aid reps, and all of the support personnel that enable students to succeed in arranging coursework. All of that is running very well on the Citrix platform today,” he adds.
Aldarondo emphasizes two more key points about the implementation:
The plan was to gain experience with the new environment before adding Citrix Cloud to the mix. Now that the IT team is experienced with the platform, the strategy is to move provisioning services and the desktop delivery controllers onto Citrix Cloud at mid-year when the university’s new fiscal year begins. After that, only the desktop workloads will be managed on-premises.
When the coronavirus pandemic reached epic and global proportions, the university ultimately sent all of its already-onboarded Enrollment Center staff members home. Both the IT team and users were completely prepared and already familiar with using the new solution thanks to the Citrix and Win 10 transition that had already taken place.
“We've seen even more growth and productivity now that workers have gone home. They have all their tools in front of them, so they can simply plug in headsets and go,” Aldarondo exclaims. “They make calls, take calls, work with students, access company resources, help students in the classroom, and much more, all from the Citrix platform.”
“Before we made the transition, users were very vocal about the problems they experienced with the legacy VMware environment,” Aldarondo points out. He points out that in the past, when the IT team introduced new solutions, help desk professionals typically experienced an increase in calls. “There will always be a percentage of the user population that is resistant to change,” he says.
“When we implemented Citrix, however, we received little to no negative feedback. The number of service calls decreased significantly. Users thought that the platform felt natural, that it was highly available and that it performed well.”
Over the next twelve months, the team will continue its Citrix roll-out – this time, concentrating on online students. Currently, students use Citrix in labs and classrooms. “Despite the fact that Citrix usage isn’t yet at scale with students, those who have used it have noted that performance is much better than it was with the legacy system,” Aldarondo adds. “Our IT team also has found that managing the Citrix environment is much easier than overseeing the VMware technology.”
Today, Post University has two populations of students whose numbers vary with each new term:
While Citrix technology primarily supports staff now, the “at scale” phase for students is coming soon. Right now, Citrix is available and being used by students only in onsite classrooms and labs. As the status approaches at scale, one of the other big challenges that the Post University IT Team faces is a concern that many other online higher education entities grapple with too. It is crucial to support the business needs of online students. These are things that typically would be handled by a visit to the registrar’s office or the bursar’s office. It is part of the job to build a support mechanism into the online environment so that students’ problems can be addressed remotely. Ultimately, Citrix technology will provide students with just that.
The IT team also is strategizing with other issues as well, for example, how it will build virtual labs for students that will enable them to access common course tools. “Our IT team really wants to push the envelope with distance learning,” says Aldarondo. “We were having these discussions prior to the pandemic, but finding viable answers has become even more important now.”
The team envisions that a number of Citrix products and solutions ultimately will comprise the Post University technology stack. Right now, Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and Citrix App Delivery Controllers (ADCs) are implemented. The vision for the next twelve months includes the addition of Citrix Cloud, Citrix Workspace and its intelligent capabilities, and Citrix SD-WAN.
In the Post IT environment, one of the things Citrix ADCs (VPX appliances) are used for is load balancing applications. In addition, Citrix ADCs securely deliver remote access to virtual apps and desktops that currently are hosted on-premises at the university.
According to Dave Aldarondo, though, there’s more: “Being able to view performance and network performance metrics in the desktop delivery controllers – without risking visibility into users’ home networks was a game changer,” he declares. “As we were scaling up the employee environment, we watched the screen and ADCs enabled us to see our business light up in real time! It was like being at a space launch!” he exclaims. “We could see the engagement; and easily determine where and when issues occurred.”
Aldarondo summarizes the transformation project this way, “This whole initiative has been really rewarding. We can’t wait to share what we’ve learned with other higher ed entities. We may have very traditional roots, but we also have a bright future as a catalyst for change in online program strategies.”