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Virtual Machines Expand at UB

Students use "zero client" devices in Lockwood Cybrary.

Published September 2013

By Ashley Steves

Good things come in small packages, especially when it comes to computing at UB.

“Will we get to a place where there will be no hardware devices? I think only the future of technology can tell us that.”
Saira Hasnain, Director
Enterprise Infrastructure Services (EIS)

Last year, Computing and Information Technology (CIT) began the Virtual Desktop Initiative, a pilot project that replaced nearly 50 personal computer workstations in public computing sites with small “zero client” box devices.

Fast-forward one year, and there are now 200 zero clients all around campus at public workspaces and printing release stations.

The newest devices were rolled out over the summer following the pilot project’s initial success. CIT replaced the Cybraries’ bulky under-the-table desktop units with Wyse’s P25 Model “zero client” boxes. The boxes provide display, keyboard and mouse connectivity to a virtual workstation emulated on a server, as well as a USB and headphone jacket.

Saira Hasnain, UB’s Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Services (EIS), has led this project since the pilot’s early stages three years ago. Part of the project’s success, she says, has been the organization’s consistency in direction throughout.

"It took us a couple years to let the technology mature before it was prime time ready to be deployed, but we have stayed the course,” Saira added. “We have done a lot of things, and VDI is in line with our principles of trying to get away from physical as much as possible. We’re going the virtual route.”

The “zero client” device brings several advantages to both UB students, faculty and staff. Besides freeing up more space for personal items at work spaces, it also allows new software or updated versions to be deployed much more efficiently. In the old workstations, software had to be loaded on each individual physical device. With the virtual devices, everything is managed from one central server which can make software changes in the virtual workstation immediately.

The university also enjoys the added benefits of cost and energy reduction. The devices cost far less–approximately one-fourth less–of the investment of a traditional workstation, and use far less energy to run, an aspect that aligns directly with UB’s environmental stewardship goal.  

CIT is now in talks to begin two additional pilot projects for the devices during the fall semester in the Facilities Department and academic labs in the School of Architecture and Planning. The School of Engineering is also looking at expanding this initiative. The replacements in the Facilities Department will mainly benefit staff, allowing them to use the zero clients in locations where there is a need for shared machines, but not a lot of desk space. It will also provide a more secure desktop environment for areas that handle sensitive information.

Eventually, Saira says the goal is to replace everything in public sites with the zero client devices, but don’t expect that to be an immediate change.

“Some form of computer or hardware device will continue to remain available at the public sites, as we still have a need to provide for those students that don’t have them themselves,” Saira said. “Will we get to a place where there will be no hardware devices? I think only the future of technology can tell us that.”