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English University Delivers Greener IT, Boosts Student Approval

Anglia Ruskin University's move to virtual desktops hasn't just cut bills and carbon emissions, it's also improved student ratings.

A desire to curb his organization's carbon footprint spurred one U.K. IT leader to evaluate a virtual desktop solution -- which had the welcome side effect of improving his customers' perception of both his team and the organization as a whole.

"We started with one problem, then found we had a new way to deal with another," Gregor Waddell, assistant IT director at Anglia Ruskin University, one of the largest universities in the East of England, with 32,000 students and staff members.

His first problem: Waddell had to provision IT and communication services for a brand new 300-seat open access area for students at the university's Cambridge campus. If possible, he wanted to avoid buying any additional cooling or air conditioning support for the building, to save money and because such a move would not support the university's green ambitions.

[ The virtual desktop model could also help government run more efficiently. Read more at Virtual Desktops Could Cut U.K. Government Costs. ]

Waddell decided his best option would be to move away from traditional thick clients. This led him, in 2011, to adopt a VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) as the best way to manage and reduce IT power for things like cooling.

Waddell's VDI topology looks like this: VMware's VMview VMware serves as the core broker for the university's new desktop services, with core applications embedded in the server images while specialist applications are streamed into the desktops as required. In terms of the actual desktop software, Anglia Ruskin uses a combination of ESX 4 and ESX 5 technology with VMView 5.1.

The team also uses Flash Memory Arrays technology from a supplier called Violin. This provides a way to deliver shared solid-state storage system support for the new VDI setup, which use PC-over-IP Windows 7 thin clients with a set of virtualized desktop and productivity applications including Office 2010 using Microsoft Application Virtualization (App-V) over HP blade servers on a 10-Gbit network backbone.

The new system -- which after a 40-client trial was rolled out to 300 student desktops in September 2011 -- now serves about 1,400 and will eventually be delivered to about 2,500 users at the university's Cambridge campus. It also met Waddell's carbon needs: he says it comes in at around 60% of what a traditional fat-client system would represent.

That brings us to Waddell's second challenge: Improving student rankings for the university. The U.K.'s higher education market is highly competitive, with student recruitment under pressure from recent government decisions to increase the cost of tuition. As a result, national student surveys -- which serve in effect as customer rankings -- have become more and more valued as a way for applicants to measure the attractiveness of colleges.

Waddell is delighted to report that students at Anglia Ruskin have started rating the university's new flexible IT infrastructure -- for example, in December 2011 IT launched a new external access to the student desktop that has proven highly popular with users -- and that the institution has started to climb the rankings. "We asked students about their IT provision experiences, and the new desktop system was so well received we had a 6% boost to our score," he told InformationWeek U.K. That complements other benefits of the project, such as rapid addition of new software like Adobe Dreamweaver, along with software license savings since the system allows software to be licensed on a concurrent rather than a 'per-seat' basis.

Great to see IT doing good green work while also helping improve the user experience.

Can data analysis keep students on track and improve college retention rates? Also in the premiere all-digital Analytics' Big Test issue of InformationWeek Education: Higher education is just as prone to tech-based disruption as other industries. (Free with registration.)

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