Consistently ranked as one of the world’s top 20 universities, University College London (UCL) attracts students from all over the world. Forty-one percent of the 38,000-strong student body comes from 150 countries outside the UK.
Aside from its reputation, one of the attractions of studying at UCL is its Bloomsbury, central London location. Student numbers have grown rapidly in recent years, but as Head of Windows Infrastructure Services Anthony Peacock explains, “UCL is constrained by its physical space. There’s no room to put up a new building, and a lot of our existing buildings are listed [as Buildings of Special Architectural or Historic Interest]. You can’t just knock one down and build a better one.”
Students’ expectations have grown, too.
“Nowadays, every student has a laptop when they arrive,” Peacock says, but software needed for a particular course may not be licensed for personal devices or may not run on a student’s chosen device. Also, when working off-campus, students and staff had no way to access centrally stored files. As a result, students had to use a limited number of on-campus PCs to complete assignments.
The university’s 20-year development strategy, UCL 2034, identified “Excellent Systems” as one of its key enablers. To deliver the service expected, Peacock’s team decided on Citrix Virtual Desktops (formerly XenDesktop) to extend the PC-based, on-campus experience to staff and students outside the existing campus.
“We now use a number of non-university buildings for teaching. Citrix Virtual Desktops lets us provide those locations with the same applications and facilities that are available on campus,” Peacock explains. “Our aim is to provide a near-identical experience whether people use an on-campus PC or the Citrix virtual desktop on a device somewhere off-campus.”
Remote access and the use of personal devices are also much simpler.
“Citrix Virtual Desktops makes it really easy to support people who want remote access. We just point them to a website, and they log in using their UCL credentials,” says Peacock. “It’s a lot easier for students than using a VPN, and people use it when working from home as an easy way to access our central file store.”
“Students also use the virtual desktop on campus for software that they can’t install on their own device,” Peacock continues. “It means they can have, say, a Mac and use an application that only runs on PC.”
Citrix Virtual Desktops also makes it easy for the university to set up additional PCs during peaks in demand.
“One of the common complaints we had from students was the lack of compute resource. Our traditional model was ‘cluster rooms’ of fixed PCs, but at busy times, those fill up. Citrix gives us the ability to set up additional temporary spaces to deal with demand. Thin-client terminals are easy to store, and you don’t have 40 PCs that need re-imaging and bringing up to date because they’ve been in a cupboard for a year,” says Peacock, “but, increasingly, we give students access from their own device, anywhere on campus with a Wi-Fi connection.”
With the UCL 2034 strategy, UCL plans to become one of the world’s top 10 universities. Peacock’s team has a role to play in supporting that goal. As he says, “It’s a perennial problem for IT. We’re always playing catch-up with demand, driving to do more while also managing the university’s federated approach to decision-making. Citrix helps with that by providing a stable, reliable, and consistent desktop experience.”