How USC’s Engineering Program Teaches With TechBy Samuel Greengard
One challenge many universities face is keeping up with rapid advancements in the field. At the University of Southern California's Viterbi School of Engineering, IT is now at the center of education. "We have witnessed a rapid revolution in the way we prepare students for a successful career in engineering," said executive director of IT, Michael Goay. "Advanced technologies, including graphic-intensive 3D design applications, are a critical element in addressing these challenges."
However, ensuring that IT systems have the processing power and flexibility to handle requirements—including the need for mobile and remote access to files across multiple devices—is no simple task. A few years ago, "We were facing a situation where, from an IT perspective, we required increasing processing power to run applications with an acceptable level of performance." At the same time, instructors were relying on more advanced graphics-intensive applications, such as computer aided design (CAD) and 3D CGI animation software.
As a result, the engineering school embarked on a major IT infrastructure upgrade in August 2014. The school piloted VMware vSphere and Horizon View running on Intel powered Dell 12G PowerEdge R720 servers. The virtualization technology delivered a superior user experience and allowed the school to use IT resources far more efficiently.
A year later, the school began expanding the technology framework with NVIDIA vGPU-enhanced virtual desktops and Dell Wyse thin client endpoints. Overall, the system now supports 6,300 students, across 27 classrooms, 900 desktops and laptops and 200 software titles. Quarterly student and faculty technology ratings have risen and the thin client approach supports the use of mobile devices, including laptops, tablets and smartphones.
Although the IT project has presented more than a few challenges, success has followed.
"As an early adopter of these solutions there were a lot of unknowns and some significant challenges; we had to experiment with how to run certain applications in a virtualized environment," Goay said. "Students have access to graphics-intensive applications anywhere and at any time—whether they are sitting in a classroom, an auditorium or at a dorm."
What's more, many students rely on Mac laptops, but the engineering software typically runs on Windows. The virtualized environment makes all of this invisible and irrelevant to the user.
"This has introduced a high level of flexibility," he added.
Because the engineering school stores all the files and data on its internal IT systems, there's no longer a need to rely on flash drives and other portable storage devices, which are both inconvenient and represent an increased security risk.
"Their data is safe and it follows them from device to device," Goay said.
IT can provision and de-provision accounts and machines immediately—and restrict access to undesirable content.
"The virtual environment is entirely sandboxed. Its sole purpose is for students working on school projects and homework. There's no reason to go there to watch ESPN or other entertainment," Goay said.
Now that the university has the system operating smoothly, it is looking to expand the use of the VDI technology in classrooms and for disaster recovery.
"This technology framework, including VDI, gives us a lot of flexibility and it has helped us manage costs far more effectively,” Goay said.