MIT Business School Grapples With Virtualization

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MIT's Sloan School of Management has embraced virtualized desktops as a way to meet user needs and streamline operations, but the IT staff accepts that finding just the right mix of hardware and software is an ongoing challenge.

Since the school started exploring thin-client virtual desktops in 2009, it has tried PCs, laptops zero-client devices and is considering expanding support to iPads and Android tablets, says Wesley Esser, MIT Sloan's director of information technology consulting and support.


Someday the school would like to abstract user desktop profiles so they are a composite of the individual files, databases and applications that can be pulled together on the fly for each user from pooled resources rather than separate virtual machines that have been created to represent each desktop, he says. But that day is a ways off.

Today, some of the school facilities support virtualization clients on PCs and some have zero clients from either Pano or Wyse. Many users don't realize they're working on virtual desktops; they think they're working on machines that run applications locally, he says.

The VDI journey started in 2009 with consideration of VDI for its PC-based computer lab, where students could access materials required for specific courses. The lab is general purpose - for teaching, checking emails, Web browsing, printing, accessing various software platforms as a service and accessing financial databases. But virtual desktops on PCs posed a management problem of maintaining the hardware and keeping the versioning of machine images up to date, he says.

In 2010 the school got a new building with eight classrooms and renovated its old building and installed VMware thin clients to provide desktops via PC over IP. The choice of VMware was a natural extension of the school using the company's products for its virtual server infrastructure, he says.

If something went wrong with the desktops displayed on the classroom PCs, it could be fixed quickly via the backend virtual machine that the classroom tapped for the virtual desktops. "It's easier to log into a custom VM than it is to install software on a PC on the fly and cause problems with other applications," he says.

In July of 2011 the school chose Pano zero clients because of its USB extension speed that was needed to connect the devices to audio-visual equipment that was used for presentations that included video. The devices have good interoperability with the gear and because of their small size, the devices can be Velcroed out of sight to the back of touchscreen monitors that are used in presentations, he says.

Since July, the school has given VDI to more staff in one form or another. The goal is less about the client machine than about the backend that makes it possible to access desktops from a variety of places such as home or conferences, Esser says.

Staff can borrow generic laptops with thin clients from the school to bring on the road with them and tap into their personalized desktop from afar. Or they can use thin terminals within the school. "We hope to give one rich environment and downplay the endpoint devices that are needed to get to it," he says. That way the number of endpoints to support makes no difference. Whatever devices suit the space that is available are acceptable and people can work from wherever they want.

He has considered providing thin clients to student laptops, but based on use of such laptops for other events, he's found that their performance is not uniform. Some work better than others depending on the hardware, software and how well individuals maintain them. The school feels an obligation to level the playing field so all students have similar experiences when they access school content, so relying on student machines is not a good idea, he says.

Still, setting up a VDI client is easy with the availability of them in various apps stores. People are more comfortable installing apps on their own tablets than they ever got on their PCs, he says.

But there are limits to how many devices the school can support, and there will always be a place for devices the school owns. "We won't ever be fully BYOD," he says. Students have always brought their own laptops because the school has no laptop program in which students would buy certain devices and the school would support them. "It's their computer, and if they need to use ours, it's a distinct channel to get to it," Esser says.

Student tablets could theoretically be used in the equation, though, as internal tests have shown. The school's IT staff has experimented with connecting tablets to external monitors as a way to create a computer lab environment. Essentially that means docking the tablet and using it as a thin client.

In the future the school has big VDI plans. Esser is working on the idea of a virtual lab in which there is no thin client associated with particular virtual machines. Instead they get there via software. Abstracting the computing environment would be key so users could get at resources from lots of different locations and devices. Users could sync data and migrate smoothly to new machines while maintaining their old data set, he says. With this model, he hopes to expand the supported endpoint devices to include iPads and Android tablets.

There are more than 100 virtual machines used regularly at the school and that may double by the end of this year. If individual user desktop profiles could be associated directly with the underlying data, applications, storage and processes rather than with virtual machines that pulls these elements together, it would simplify and streamline the virtual backend, Esser says.

He says he'd also consider cloud vendors offering desktop as a service with a pure Web interface that would cut out clients altogether. The question is where would the central store of data reside? He says he could see a provider supplying the Web interface to data stored on school-owned devices, but not putting that data itself in the cloud yet.

Before that could happen, cloud licensing would have to improve to better define what belongs to the customer and what belongs to the provider and how it is all secured. The school would not pioneer such relationships. "We'd have to see someone else's case law on that," Esser says.

(Tim Greene covers Microsoft for Network World and writes the Mostly Microsoft blog. Reach him at and follow him on Twitter!/Tim_Greene)

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This story, "MIT Business School Grapples With Virtualization" was originally published by Network World.

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