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Virtualization moves from server room to classroom

The University of Buckingham created a virtual lab for students from existing virtual infrastructure resources.

IT managers at the University of Buckingham in the U.K. have extended virtualization from the server room to the classroom, giving students access to virtual infrastructure from several computer labs around campus.

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Previously, students in the university's Applied Computing program had access to a single computer lab with only eight PCs. Each PC could be configured as a standalone system, limiting the number of students that could take the class and the number of systems they could use in their test labs. Plus, configuring -- and reconfiguring -- those servers was a drain on IT staff.

"At first we gave them limited access, which caused problems because they couldn't do everything they needed to do in an applied computing course," said Anthony Cole, the head of IT at the university. "So then we gave them admin rights, which meant they could break things. And they did break things."

We gave [students]admin rights, which meant they could break things.
Anthony Cole,
head of ITUniversity of Buckingham

To speed up system recovery, Cole's team kept a ghost image of the system on a hidden partition. But even then, re-applying Microsoft patches and specialized software took a lot of time, Cole said. "By the time you've done the whole lab, you're looking at a day's work."

The solution was to create virtual machine (VM) templates of the applied computing program's systems and run them on the university's back-office Citrix XenServer hosts. (The university has been a reference account for Citrix Systems Inc.) Students then access these VMs using the Remote Desktop Protocol in a makeshift virtual desktop infrastructure configuration.

Students can now now access up to three VMs at a time and from several labs around campus. "It's really expanded the number of students that can access that lab resource," Cole said.

Automated VM provisioning
Cole's team took an additional load off IT staff by deploying an automated provisioning system. With DynamicOps' Virtual Resource Manager, students can log into the provisioning software, where they request the number and type of VMs to be set up, Cole explained.

"Within 20 or 30 minutes, all the VMs are ready, and the system says, 'Here are the URLs,' and that's that," Cole said.

The DynamicOps software also manages the lifecycle of these VMs (i.e., sets an expiration date on them after which point they are deleted or archived).

In theory, university IT staff could have written the provisioning system themselves, but that would have been a lot of work, Cole said.

"We're used to creating templates, but this takes it to another level. To do it ourselves would have been a very big project," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Alex Barrett, News Director at, or follow @aebarrett on twitter.

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