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Indiana University virtualization pro talks VDI management

Stephanie Cox helped to create Indiana University's award-winning virtual environment for staff and students. Here, she discusses lessons learned and VDI management challenges.

VDI management is a challenge in itself, but factors such as a large amount of end users, resource fluctuations and licensing limitations can make an IT admin's job even more difficult.

The IT team at Indiana University in Bloomington, Ind., must deal with all of those factors and more in any given day. The university has seven campuses, 130,000 students and 20,000 faculty staff members, with 200,000 endpoint devices that are connected to the wireless network at any given time. Despite these challenges, the IT staff has created IUanyWare, a virtualization service that enables students and faculty to access information when they need it. At Citrix Synergy 2019, the annual user conference, Citrix announced that Indiana University won the 2019 Citrix Innovation Award recognizing their achievements with IUanyWare.

At Citrix Synergy 2019, Stephanie Cox, manager of virtualization services at Indiana University, discussed the challenges of running a large virtual environment, and how they've used Citrix products such as Virtual Apps and Desktops to the advantage of both IT and end users.

How were you able to scale your Citrix environment to work with a large user base?

Stephanie Cox: Our Citrix implementation, initially, was designed to be an extension of the university's computer labs. [The previous IT team] thought, 'Let's just take that image that's in the computer desktop and virtualize that, and offer it to everybody.' That didn't prove to be all that successful, or something that we could sustain for a long time, because it was such a big image.

Stephanie Cox, manager of virtualization services at Indiana UniversityStephanie Cox

It was much more cost-effective, and easier, to break that image into smaller ones -- something that we could offer to the masses, because we do offer the Citrix environment to faculty, staff and students. That's 130,000 potential users that can get on that system. They don't all show up at the same time, thank goodness, so we don't have to buy nearly that many licenses to run it. We can run it with about 2,000 concurrent licenses, but we are able to then serve the need for what was the legacy lab that was on campus, and then do a whole lot more with it.

We're right in what I call the midlife stage in our platform. It's rock solid. We have 99% uptime and we have over 89% user satisfaction. It took a while to get the infrastructure sized right, to really build the trust in folks so that they think, 'This is something I can rely on; it's up all the time.' The natural evolution, then, is to be more innovative on that platform.

What were the next steps your team took to make that VDI platform more useful?

Cox: We had some directives from our management to look into more of a secure environment for our medical environment. We run desktops for our school of dentistry, which operates out of the school of medicine. So we have HIPAA-related criteria that we have to do around that. We use several of Citrix's products, we own and operate two NetScalers and we have StoreFront, which is Workspace now.

The security that we were able to build into that dental school, we just kind of carved a piece off and networked it off, so that we could use the same engineers and the existing platform. My team is very small, but we support all of that: the school of dentistry, speech and hearing sciences, and our professional departments and services as well.

What are some of the biggest challenges that you face with VDI management?

Cox: Sizing is probably the trick of the trade. We have the potential to have 130,000 users, so trying to figure out how many will show up on any given day or time is a challenge. We've been very close [to going over the license limit], but in the 6.5 years I've been there, we haven't gone over.

We have the potential to have 130,000 users, so trying to figure out how many will show up on any given day or time is a challenge.
Stephanie Cox Manager of virtualization services, Indiana University

We have these big fluctuations in my environment. I might have a professor who teaches an online course, and for his online course, he's already worked with us and we've built a custom desktop for his particular class. He might have the syllabi, links to websites, even documents preloaded that he wants the students to have. We already have that provisioned and ready to go, and he loves it so much that every semester, year after year, he'll want that to come back. But every once in a while, [faculty] doesn't tell us that the enrollment increased, so we have 200 to 300 more that will be in this one VDI environment.

We use Citrix Provisioning Services to very quickly kind of steal resources or virtual machines from other areas that aren't in that session, because dentistry won't be open at 7 o'clock at night when this online class comes on. And then we reboot all of those resources to the next. We have become masters at moving [resources] around. It's a challenge, but it's proved to be very successful. 

It sounds like a lot of back-end work to move those images around. How do you manage that?

Cox: It is a lot of back-end work, and we do it over and over again. When you, as a professor or director of medicine, want to do something more customized for a particular group of people, then we call that a custom unit, and we have a whole process that you work with my team on. We get the actual professors -- who are not technical people but know in their minds what they want -- in our lab and let them build that image with us.

We're a team of four engineers and one intern, and we build images all day long. The challenge for me, really, was trying to find out how many of these golden images can we sustain. We already run five Citrix Provisioning servers, which Citrix tells me is the very most for their customers. And I have a ton of virtual golden images that I rotate among them. When the Citrix App Layering system came along right on time, that's what's helped us reduce the number of golden images. We can have one, and then we have different layers in there. So that's something we have to start leveraging more as we move into the fall of 2020.

Where is Indiana University currently at in their cloud journey?

Cox: We moved to our Citrix Cloud license about a year ago, and we were on a three-year migration plan with Citrix. We were able to keep my existing Platinum on-premises licenses with my option to move them to the cloud, so it's kind of like I can be in both places right now, which is nice.

We were eager to move to the Citrix Cloud. It's not going to help with all of my golden images; we have a ton of patching to always do on premises, but being able to move the infrastructure pieces to the Citrix Cloud is huge for us. That eliminates five or six servers, but still, it's a few that we don't have to worry about updating the Citrix code on it once there's a new release. That will help a great deal.

News writer Jesse Scardina and assistant site editor John Powers contributed to this report.

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