Death of the Computer Lab?

Question: What are the most popular buzzwords in IT?

Answer: Last year, the “cloud”. This year (so far), “VCL” and “VDI”. As in, if you can build a virtual computing lab (VCL) using virtual desktop infrastructire (VDI), you can shut down at least some of your computing labs and save money as a result.


Everything we know about computing labs indicates that lab usage has *increased*, even as the number of student-owned computers/laptops has risen to near universal levels. Let me rephrase that. Other options exist, but usage has increased. And yet we believe that the introduction of another option (ie, VCL/VDI) will now decrease usage/need?

Ummm….remember when computers and email were supposed to help us move to the “paperless” office? Yeah, I’m getting more paper than *ever* these days, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of VDI. We have a virtualization strategy at Menlo that extends far beyond the lab (more on that later), and are very excited about VDI’s potential — as a change agent for how we deploy desktops across the institution, and as an extension of the physical lab. But not as a replacement for it.

Here’s how I see it…

Today we have specialized labs that each run a different set of software. So to teach a Photoshop class, you have to reserve lab #1, and to teach an accounting class with Quickbooks or another accounting application, you have to reserve lab #2.

A VCL/VDI solution changes this, because you can virtualize your Photoshop desktop or accounting desktop, and then allow access to that desktop from any lab, or really, any location. This enables your faculty to reserve any lab they want, but unless you have dozens of underutilized labs, doesn’t change the fact that faculty will still want to teach their classes using the software, which generally means, in a lab somewhere.

And keeping in mind that virtually everything we do is computer dependent these days, and more and more disciplines/professions are using specialized software, the instructional usage of labs is only bound to increase. In fact, we built another instructional computing lab at Menlo last summer, and it’s already nearing max capacity (and usage in our other labs has not decreased).

Does that mean you shouldn’t explore VCL/VDI? No!!

In my view, there are a good number of benefits that VDI can provide your constituents, and your staff. Better access to software, increased life of hardware (you can run a virtual desktop on the equipment in your physical labs, too, not just in the ether), easier image/desktop management, greater flexibility, simplified support, and so on. Presumably lower costs too.

So is there a strong case for virtualizing your desktops? I believe so, yes. But as for those reports about the death of the computer lab as a result? Ehhhh, not so much.

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