Queen’s University Drives Teacher Innovation and Maximizes Student Learning Time

For engineering and science students with computationally intensive assignments, reliably available computing power is essential. And for IT departments responsible for provisioning and supporting these environments, reducing CapEx and IT administration time are equally essential. That’s why the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science (FEAS) at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, knew it had to act quickly when students and faculty began experiencing significant delays in launching and running applications essential to their work.

Those applications total more than 100 and are incredibly resource-intensive. During peak work times, students were losing as much as 15 percent of their lab time waiting for applications to open. Eventually, even regular office productivity tools like Microsoft Office were being hit with slowdowns. And of course, this resulted in decreased productivity for the IT team as it dealt  with student and faculty concerns and complaints.

From PCs to Virtual Desktops

When a donor who wanted to enable technical innovation presented the school with funds, FEAS decided to replace a portion of its fleet of PCs to pilot a virtualized desktop infrastructure (VDI), in particular VMware Horizon.

By creating and assigning users with virtual PCs within shared server hardware, VDI enabled users to access the compute power that their applications needed, and it allowed users to access applications and compute power remotely. For FEAS IT, switching to VMware Horizon has reduced CapEx and has streamlined the IT team’s ability to manage desktop image complexity.

From SAN to vSAN

Although the move from a fleet of PCs to VDI improved IT performance, cost, and administration concerns, it became clear that those hadn’t been the only technical roadblocks.

As the user base grew and applications became more resource-intensive, the FEAS IT team’s existing storage solution—an EMC VNX SAN infrastructure—couldn’t handle the increasing demand. The hosts were routinely experiencing usage spikes five to six times above normal, which would bring down the entire storage system and ultimately prevent access to files and applications.

Expanding this overburdened storage infrastructure with a new SAN was cost-prohibitive. However, when IT investigated a  hyper-converged infrastructure (HCI) approach, which uses storage built on standard commodity x86-based servers, the team determined that this architectural method would lower overall storage costs, and also scale storage quickly and granularly.  

FEAS IT implemented its new storage solution using VMware vSAN. The result: it solved storage-related performance and capacity issues while cost-effectively scaling storage.

Initially done for two departments, the HCI solution has since been expanded to four departments and multiple staff offices, comprising 3,500 students and 100 staff and faculty. FEAS now has 250 virtual machines and anywhere from 150 to 200 concurrent users. 

After deploying Virtual SAN, the improvement in performance was night and day. All of a sudden, everything was snappier.

Stephen Hunt, Director of IT, FEAS

Improved Response, Reduced CapEx, Easier Support

With the VMware VDI solution, users now have nearly instantaneous access to even the most demanding desktop applications. And with the vSAN solution, storage is no longer bottlenecking application performance. Now IT can add new storage as needed and manage the storage environment from a central dashboard.

Overall, reports Stephen Hunt, director of information technology for FEAS, “The VDI deployment is even more successful with the vSAN solution. Lags from system login and application launches have disappeared, allowing students to maximize lab time. After deploying vSAN, the improvement in performance was night and day. All of a sudden, everything was snappier.” 

Additionally, provisioning desktop PC power through VDI lets FEAS faculty add new applications to support coursework, and lets IT managers update desktop profiles and rapidly deploy them to students. “Faculty can drive more teaching innovation because it is easier to experiment with new tools,” says Graydon Smith, manager of IT systems and development. And when you’re in the business of education, driving teacher innovation and maximizing student learning time are essential.