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The Virtual World of UB’s Public Computing Sites

By Blake Cooper

Published March 12, 2015

Fun fact: that computer you’re on in the Cybrary might not really be in the Cybrary at all.

Blake Cooper (UB Student, Class of 2016) is originally from Canandaigua, NY. He is studying Spanish, Linguistics and Comparative Literature, and beginning work on translating an Argentinian novel into English.

UB is slowly converting its public computers into virtual desktops, so-called “zero client” boxes that provide display and input connected to an emulated desktop running from a group of application and file storage servers somewhere in the UB “cloud."

This brings a host of benefits that make technology at UB more secure and environmentally friendly.

Saira Hasnain is UBIT’s Director of Enterprise Infrastructure Services and she’s overseen the gradual virtualization of physical machines in the public sites, a process that started in 2012.

“Five years ago, we were 100% physical,” Saira told UBIT News, referring to the kind of computer you might think of when you think of a computer: a machine, in a box, that comes to life when you turn it on.

Those machines are bulky, and hard to maintain in large numbers because software updates need to be applied one machine at a time. But today, nearly 80% of public site computers are virtual machines, and when someone uses them, they’re actually interacting with an “image” of a desktop installed, updated and secured on UB’s core systems.

A Few Risks, and Many Rewards

Although UB’s servers are remarkably reliable, the need remains to address concerns about downtime and other performance issues. For this reason, Saira told us they’ve been converting physical machines to virtual ones in stages, adding 50 machines every semester and then doing extensive analysis to make sure the performance measures up.

Saira told us that, ideally, 100% of the machines in UB’s public computing sites will eventually be zero-client devices running virtual workstation sessions on VDI servers.

“One advantage is a difference in energy costs,” Saira said. “Consider a physical machine, which uses 78 kiloWatts [per hour], to a zero-client machine that uses only five.” Zero-client devices are also cheaper to build and maintain, since they require fewer materials and contain no moving parts.

“The real benefit is aligning UBIT with the University’s mission of environmental stewardship,” Saira added. “Zero-client machines are easier to recycle at the end of useful life owing to few harmful or toxic substances.”

Ultimately, the transition to virtual desktops has created a leaner, easier to maintain and more energy efficient model for bringing technology to the UB community: goals which UBIT will remain focused on looking ahead.