Robert Gordon University delivers graphics workstations virtually

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Researchers in the schools of architecture and engineering at Robert Gordon University have been supported in their remote learning via access to workstation-class desktop virtualisation.

The Aberdeen-based university has supported students during the coronavirus lockdown by deploying Nutanix Xi Frame to complement and extend its existing on-campus user computing environment.

The university serves about 16,000 students and employs roughly 3,000 staff, supported by an IT department of 43 staff.

From an online teaching perspective, the first lockdown happened while teaching was winding down at the start of the exam period. Timon Watson, user computing team leader at Robert Gordon University, said that while the exams were a big challenge for the university, IT’s role involved supporting existing services. “The big challenge was how to get ready for September,” he said.

Engineering and architecture students require complex applications that use graphics processing unit acceleration for high-definition rendering. While the university has been a Citrix customer for 15 years and deployed Citrix on thin clients to provide desktop virtualisation, Timon said the university needed to support students who were unable to install any software on their laptops. To get around this, the university decided to deploy desktop virtualisation using the browser-based Nutanix Xi Frame, which does not require any additional cline software.

“I’ll admit we were skeptical,” said Watson. “But the more we spoke to other customers and tried it for ourselves the more we came to see Xi Frame as a perfect fit for this particular cohort of remote users. No need for client software – just a browser – no plugins or infrastructure changes and everything managed through a single console instead of six or seven as with our existing solution. It was staggering how little effort was needed.”

Xi Frame itself can be hosted in the cloud or, as with Robert Gordon University, on-premise, using Nutanix HCI software. Following a hiatus due to the Covid-19 lockdown, setup of both a Nutanix cluster and the Xi Frame solution began in earnest in late 2020, and was completed in just days by team members with no prior experience of either Xi Frame or its management.

When the university campus reopens, Watson said there are opportunities to reassess what user computing should look like going forward. “Do we still need to have rooms full of PCs, which has been the traditional model in education, or can we remove some to free up space, where students can come in with their own laptops, plug them in and still get access to their applications?”

Providing access to engineering and architecture applications means students do not have to purchase their own workstation class laptops to run these high-end applications.

“All they need is something they can plug a bigger screen into and we’ll take care of all the processing for them,” he said. In other words, they can do their coursework using an inexpensive device.

Students have been provided with remote access during the lockdown. Going forward, this opens up the possibility for the university to extend its reach beyond courses delivered on a physical campus.

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