One of the UK’s top universities chose Citrix and Microsoft Azure Virtual Desktop (formerly Windows Virtual Desktop) to deliver a powerful and familiar desktop experience to students and staff, on campus or off.
As higher education evolves, the technology needs and demands of students and staff become greater. It’s a trend that the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated. Too often, static resources such as powerful workstation PCs or advanced software installed on a limited number of desktops do not meet teaching or learning needs.
Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s Northumbria University – recently awarded Top Young UK University – tackled the challenge using Citrix Workspace, Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktop and Microsoft Azure Virtual Desktop.
“We recognized the need for flexible technology and more flexible software delivery,” explains IT Director Simon Corbett. A longstanding Citrix customer, the university decided to modernize its on-premises Citrix product with a shift to cloud – providing students and staff with a more flexible solution that supports modern work and study styles.
“Citrix was our first choice because of the flexibility, scalability, and manageability it offers,” says the university’s Client Software Manager, Alan Blakey. “WVD enables us to deliver familiar desktops at pace. Citrix completes the picture by feeding in the relevant applications, reducing the complexity of management, and adding a level of control.”
The team also used Citrix Remote PC Access (a feature of Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops) to improve utilization of its existing investment in hardware.
“Physical locations like PC labs close at, say, 5pm, but now, with Remote PC Access, students can remotely login to physical workstation PCs 24/7,” says the university’s Client Software Manager, Alan Blakey. “That's a massive benefit for students and it ensures we get maximum use from the technology we’ve already invested in, such as high-end PCs and specialized software like 3D graphical applications.”
Remote PC Access provides a secure, easy-to-access 1:1 connection between a physical device and a remote user.
The Covid-19 lockdown accelerated Northumbria’s strategy. When the pandemic meant that students couldn’t even access university labs during normal hours, Remote PC Access ensured they could continue to work from their halls of residence, from home, or wherever they were confined.
“It was easy to put a link to Citrix Remote PC Access onto Azure Virtual Desktop and provide the ability for students to access the technology they need as part of their programs of study during a business continuity situation,” says Corbett. “In a world where travel is restricted and social distancing is in place, we have a solution that allows students to maintain their studies. Citrix has given us access to compute power and specialist software that we couldn't have had otherwise.”
Business continuity shouldn’t be about “making do”. In difficult times, people still need to be as effective as possible while lacking the personal, physical interaction of more normal times.
“We always put the student at the heart of what we do and their wellbeing, especially in a challenging situation, is important,” Corbett explains. “For a student, confined to halls of residence because of
Covid-19, we would like to make their experience the best possible. If we can do that through technology, that's got to be a good thing.”
Northumbria uses a hybrid infrastructure of cloud and on-premises servers. Resources are deployed to a familiar Windows desktop using Azure Virtual Desktop and Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops. By leveraging the Citrix platform, a single management plane gives administrators control over both their cloud and on-prem environments.
As Blakey says, “Some applications work better from our on-premises servers so these can be fed into the cloud image from our datacenter.”
“We've put virtual desktops on-premises and in the cloud so we have complete flexibility about where we put the compute resources,” he explains. “It can be dedicated to a discreet desktop, in a server on some blade infrastructure under a hypervisor, or in Azure.”
In all situations, university staff and students enjoy a single, simple and secure, desktop that provides everything they require including teaching/learning resources and collaboration, as Corbett says. “Academics can run labs remotely and demonstrate software. Students can access the Blackboard VLE, while staff use Microsoft Teams for all our meetings.”
Overall, Corbett continues, “The user experience is excellent. It’s intuitive and I’m a great believer in technology being simple to use. If you need a manual to use the technology, then we've put in the wrong solution. As a student or an academic you need to be spending your time learning or teaching your subject, not learning how to use the technology.”
“Citrix gives us manageability on top of Windows Virtual Desktops,” says Blakey. “Citrix Autoscaling is a good example. It enables us to automatically add or shut down servers based on usage which generates a cost saving when the additional capacity is not required. Citrix reporting is also amazing. There is a myriad of reports we can run to help with cost control, audit and governance, including usage, users, length of sessions and resources accessed.”
The combination of Citrix and Microsoft in a hybrid Azure and on-premises environment provides flexibility to respond to changing needs in both short and long terms. During the quieter summer period, cloud resources can be reduced, then scaled up again to serve Northumbria’s full complement of 3,500 staff and 30,000 students in autumn when the academic year begins.
“With Citrix and Microsoft we have the platform to take forward and support new ways of teaching and learning,” Corbett says. “It allows us more flexibility and efficiency in the use of resources, it gives students greater choice, and it lays a foundation for future productivity benefits. Users have one login that gives them secure, reliable access to all the applications and information they require including systems like Blackboard, ServiceNow and staff productivity tools.”
“We are at the start of our journey,” he continues, “and we’re looking forward to exploring and leveraging the productivity advantages of Citrix Workspace. The Citrix and Microsoft partnership is an important, strategic partnership for the university as we try to give our students the best technology we can.”
In a [business continuity situation] where travel is restricted and social distancing is in place, we have a solution that allows students to maintain their studies. Citrix has given us access to compute power and specialist software that we couldn't have had otherwise.