Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen traces its roots back over 250 years. Today, it is one of Scotland’s top universities. More than 17,000 students from 120 countries are enrolled, mainly in vocational courses from three faculties: Aberdeen Business School, the Faculty of Design and Technology, and the Faculty of Health and Social Care. The Times Higher Student Experience Survey recently ranked RGU as being third-equal (with Oxford University) in the UK for the quality of its facilities.
RGU has also been recognised by The Times Good University Guide as the UK’s best modern university for five consecutive years, and consistently holds one of the UK’s best records for graduate employment.
Richard Lynch, Head of IT Operations and Support, explains the university’s success in graduate employability: “It’s a combination of student work placements, the relevance of the courses offered, the quality of the teaching and the software and hardware that’s available to students. From an IT perspective, this means we are delivering lots of services to lots of people who have a very high expectation for reliability, flexibility of access and availability of software.”
When Richard first arrived at RGU, he was tasked with devising a replacement cycle for the university’s PCs. The goal was to spread cost by replacing all PCs over an ongoing five-year cycle, prioritising the refresh on the basis of most immediate need.
However, Richard soon found that a different approach was needed. He explains, “When I started speaking to the faculties about their requirements – what software they needed, what drove decisions about hardware specifications and where students actually wanted to access the software – I realised that the PC-based model was creating constraints for the university. Certain software was only available on certain machines. We actually had rooms named after the software that was available within them! Restricting software to specific PCs was tying up real estate, limiting the usefulness of PCs, restricting students’ access to learning resources and driving all sorts of decisions.”
At the time, RGU’s IT policy was heavily devolved. Faculties made independent decisions about purchasing and supporting any specialist software and hardware they required. Central IT was responsible for campus-wide infrastructure and some general, university-wide software. As a result, students experienced high levels of inconsistency in IT services. Different departments would use different applications, and run different versions of those applications, to perform similar functions, and specialist software was only accessible on PCs within each department. This fragmented approach made RGU’s overall IT service rather inflexible, as resources could not be easily shared across the university. Lacking visibility across the estate, the Central IT department also found it hard to manage software licence compliance.
Richard recalls, “I realised we didn’t need a five-year refresh cycle. We needed a remote access strategy, whereby we established what applications users needed for their courses and made them available wherever required. We needed to get smarter about what we were putting in front of students.”
The catalyst for change was RGU’s £100m investment in a new building. The university was consolidating its city-wide facilities onto a single campus, and the schools of engineering, pharmacy and computing, along with the university library, were all moving to the new building. This created an opportunity to combine the move with a new digital strategy, minimising disruption for students and introducing a new, improved service within the new building.
With a focus on providing flexible access to software and processing power, rather than a particular hardware solution, Richard and his team evaluated different application delivery options. RGU and the University of Aberdeen had recently invested in building a shared data centre, and Richard was keen to use that facility to “put the processing power and cooling capability all in the right place”, centralising resources for greater energy efficiency and flexibility.
Using virtualisation to deliver IT services from the data centre meant that Richard could centralise provisioning of these services and present students with a more consistent desktop experience.
Richard and his team worked with Gold Citrix Solution Advisor Incremental Group to evaluate alternatives. XenApp became the favoured option because, as Richard explains, “The Citrix solution allowed us to present a familiar desktop look and feel so we wouldn’t ‘scare’ anyone. The licensing model also worked for us in terms of numbers and the levels of concurrency we expected. XenApp enabled us to deliver a wide range of applications as a familiar desktop experience.”
The team installed 24 XenApp virtual servers in the joint data centre and, in the first year, deployed 950 HP thin-client terminals in the new building. Remote and on-campus wireless access to the XenApp environment was enabled for any device running the Citrix Receiver client.
“It was our absolute desire to make ourselves as device- and location-agnostic as possible,” says Richard.
Staff and students now have on-campus Wi-Fi access to more than 600 applications. RGU consistently experiences a usage peak of 4,000 concurrent sessions from students’ personal devices, and sees 8,000 unique devices connecting each day. As Richard explains, “We have a daily spike at around 9am, when students arrive with their laptops or tablets and phones and smart watches. The network team calls it a Flash Mob.”
Students logging in are presented with a familiar Windows desktop. As Richard says, “Many of the students using thin-client terminals in classrooms or the library will not even know that they are using the Citrix platform. The project was always focused on delivering a good user experience for staff and students, and that’s the prize that we’ve gained. There are just no barriers to adoption.”
With XenApp delivering desktops to any device with Citrix Receiver installed, the availability of specific software is no longer limited to particular rooms. RGU benefits from greater flexibility in using its real estate, while students have the freedom to access their apps and data from home, a coffee shop or while on the move.
Where before students experienced inconsistency, caused in part by the university’s highly devolved approach to IT management, they now have consistent and predictable access to the software they require, wherever they are.
A typical case is that of RGU Student President Edward Pollock, who says “Citrix Receiver is such a valuable and useful tool. I’m a new user, and I’m beginning to see how valuable it is to be able to access software and storage from anywhere in the world. I’ve found it especially useful that I’ve been able to access Windows software on my Apple MacBook. This technology will have such a useful impact on educating students who will have the ability to learn and study from anywhere in the world.”
Richard explains, “In higher education, student satisfaction is a key measure of success and you only have one chance to get it right. If a new student has a poor IT experience when they arrive in September, it affects their view for the next four years of their course. The Citrix environment helps us make the most of that one chance.”
“We have control now, where we simply didn’t before,” says Richard. Because XenApp virtualised applications are managed and delivered from the data centre, administrative tasks such as installation, patching and upgrades only need to be done once, and then are instantly available to all users. Licence compliance can be managed more easily with central control over which applications are deployed. The Citrix solution has increased IT efficiency, giving the team more time to respond to urgent issues. Richard explains, “If there is a problem with hardware in a lecture theatre, and 50 to 100 kids are all staring at the lecturer, our support staff can respond more quickly because they are no longer running around with a stack of CDs, updating PCs.”
The team can also provide a more reliable service. The data centre has built-in redundancy to cope with any system failures, and a back-up generator. In recent severe weather, flooding and power cuts, remote users and those in areas of the campus that retained power could still access the resources they required. When it comes to desktop hardware reliability, RGU has a break/fix policy. If a thin-client terminal develops a fault, it is simply replaced with a new one. Virtualisation ensures the user can log on the new device and receive instant access to their previous session.
“Supportability and student experience are tied together,” explains Richard, “and we now have a huge capability there that we just didn’t have before.”
Centralisation also makes it easy to scale up IT services provisioning in line with increased consumption, which is a “key win” for Richard and his team. “After many years in the IT industry, it’s refreshing to be able to relatively quickly impact the service we provide, based on user demand.”
Next, Richard and his team will address the needs of specialist user groups. “Our current infrastructure is really good, but it’s not quite right for some use cases like architecture, engineering and computing. For example, our computing students have a project PC on which they install whatever software they are working with. We want to virtualise that project environment too, so they can access their machine from anywhere.”
To do that, the team will implement a XenDesktop VDI solution to provide the graphics and CPU capability required for power users.
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