The College of Engineering from Georgia Tech sought to virtualize its computer labs’ desktops, on which it ran the massive engineering applications used by students to learn sophisticated, and compute-intensive, three-dimensional computer-aided
design and manufacturing graphics software. The common solution—maintaining physical machines with graphics cards—would diminish the benefits of virtualization. Instead, Georgia Tech adopted a highly innovative solution: using new graphics capabilities in
Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V, even before that software was officially released. It succeeded in giving students anytime, anywhere access to the applications, streamlined and automated much of the management burden, and even reduced some capital and operating
Students at the Georgia Institute of Technology’s College of Engineering, like students elsewhere, live in a world in which they can download just about any application they want to just about any device they have: laptop, tablet, phone, e-reader.
But that wasn’t possible with some of the software they were required to use for their engineering classes. For example, the AutoCAD 3D computer-aided design software they used was downloadable, but many of the tools they needed were incompatible with the
Apple laptops that some used. Students with PC-based laptops avoided these incompatibilities, but they often didn’t want to carry their laptops with them on campus. In any case, the laptops lacked the massive graphics computing power needed to run some of
the software, such as the highly sophisticated rendering software used in Autodesk Inventor. So, the college ran AutoCAD and other compute-intensive engineering applications on workstation-class computers in its labs because those were the computers powerful
enough to handle them.
||Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V gives us memory management and a manageable solution that works right out of the box.
| Didier Contis
Director of Technology Services, Georgia Tech
The reasons were compelling. The students wanted broader access anyway. And Georgia Tech wanted to give it to them. Achieving that goal would do more than help today’s students; it would also facilitate the expansion of distance-learning programs that could
make compute-intensive applications available anywhere in the world. That goal might have been daunting for some colleges, but Georgia Tech’s College of Engineering was up to the challenge.
The college began to implement its solution in 2008. Virtualization—and, in particular, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)—became a key technology. With the virtualization model, applications would run not on local, client devices—where compute power was
expensive, insufficient, or both—but on back-end servers, and delivered virtually to users on their preferred devices. To implement the plan, the college adopted Citrix XenDesktop software running on the VMware ESX and XenServer hypervisors.
The virtualization solution helped to deliver much of the engineering courseware to students in their dorms and elsewhere, but it proved insufficient for the most graphics-intensive design software. For those applications, the college still needed to maintain
a physical graphics card and 2 to 4 gigabytes (GB) of memory for each desktop, increasing the complexity and cost of the solution and limiting the college’s hardware options. The workstations in several of the college’s labs were due for replacement; the VDI
as then configured would be an expensive and impractical alternative.
In 2011, the college began to modify its VDI solution to make better use of scant memory resources. Also, it wanted a cost-effective solution that it could roll out more broadly across the labs. It found that alternative in the Hyper-V virtualization
technology in the Windows Server 2008 R2 operating system with Service Pack 1 (SP1).
“We moved to Hyper-V for the memory feature and for the greater density of virtual machines per host,” says Didier Contis, Director of Technology Services at Georgia Tech.
The move to Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 with Hyper-V addressed several of the college’s key concerns—but virtualizing the physical hosts that ran the graphics-intensive applications wasn’t one of them.
In 2012, Contis and his colleagues were excited to learn about Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V, an upgrade to their virtualization and operating system software. The college’s administrators were interested in the enhanced Remote Desktop Services (RDS)
tool, which enables remote connections to the network or data center.
In particular, they were interested in the Microsoft RemoteFX feature in RDS. The feature improves virtual graphics processing for both VDI and RemoteApp programs. Specifically, it improves the virtual delivery of 3-D experiences across networks, including
those with limited bandwidth and high latency.
The college wanted to use Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V to virtualize four labs (about 160 seats total). The college’s budget for the move—US$200,000—was tight, according to Contis. The timeline was even tighter; the labs needed to be operational for
the first day of fall 2012 classes: August 20. However, the software was available only in prerelease form, pending its formal launch in September. Working with Microsoft, the college could get final code early—but only one week before the start of classes.
“We knew we were taking a risk,” says Contis. “We were pushing the limits of what was possible. But we had the expertise at the college, and our staff said Microsoft would deliver as promised.”
The VDI environment that Georgia Tech built by using Windows Server 2012 centers on a five-node cluster. Each node serves a remote desktop virtual hardware (RDVH) role and hosts a graphics card and up to 74 virtual machines. Those five nodes are supported
by a two-node file server cluster for Simple Message Block 3 (SMB3) storage, to gain more flexible and lower-cost alternatives to traditional storage area network (SAN) devices. The SMB3 storage support is new to Hyper-V in Windows Server 2012. Another two-node
cluster supports remote desktop user access and administrative services (Figure 1).
|Figure 1. The central, five-node cluster of the Georgia Tech VDI environment
is supported by SMB3 storage, new to Windows Server 2012, which provides
more flexible, lower-cost storage options.
The architecture runs on Dell PowerEdge R720 servers with 16 cores and 192 GB of memory, and on five Nvidia VGX K1 graphics processing cards. “The hardware allows us to optimize the graphics processing capability that we get from Windows Server 2012,” says
Contis. The college also used prerelease Fiber-Channel-over-Ethernet drivers for QLogic Converged Network Adapters.
The college replaced the traditional workstations in the labs with Wyse Z90D7 thin-client devices. Students have the option to use the new infrastructure to access either of two pools of virtual machines: desktops running the Windows 7 operating system from
the Citrix server farm or desktops running the Windows 8 operating system directly from Windows Server 2012 Remote Desktop Services, with the choice generally dependent upon the applications that students wish to use.
With the assistance of Microsoft Services Consulting, Georgia Tech built the architecture with prerelease versions of Windows Server 2012 and then updated the architecture with the final release of Windows Server 2012 during the week before classes began.
||In a week’s time, we rebuilt the master image, created our collection of images, and rebuilt about 10 servers with the new code.
| Mike Anderson
IT Support Professional Manager Senior, Georgia Tech
“In a week’s time, we rebuilt the master image, created our collection of images, and rebuilt about 10 servers with the new code,” says Mike Anderson, IT Support Professional Manager Senior at Georgia Tech. “We were ready on time and on budget.”
Contis and his colleagues plan to expand the VDI environment. For example, they have begun to adopt Microsoft System Center 2012 for data center and client management, especially for virtual machine management in the Windows 7 server farm. They will likely
expand that use to cover the Windows 8 environment, the host servers, and the deployment of software and software updates.
Through its use of Windows Server 2012, Georgia Tech is meeting students’ needs for broader access to software; streamlining and automating management of the virtual environment; and reducing capital and operating costs, too.
Students Gain Anytime, Anywhere Access to Windows 8 and Graphics-Intensive Software
Engineering students now have virtualized access to their courseware, including their most graphics-intensive applications. “Our students are managing their time more efficiently because they don’t have to work around the limits of the technology,” says
Jay Gallman, IT Support Professional Lead at Georgia Tech. “For example, students don’t have to plan their study sessions around evening trips to the labs to access AutoCAD and Autodesk Inventor—they can do so from the library, the student union, the dorms—wherever
they choose to study.”
In addition to giving students broader access to engineering courseware, Georgia Tech’s migration to the Microsoft virtualization platform also gave them access to the Windows 8 operating system. In the first week of classes, 500 students logged on to the
Windows 8 VDI environment. “This is a major jump from the initial 100 or so we saw accessing Windows 8 on days one and two,” says Joe Fox, Senior Consultant at Microsoft Services.
Adds Contis, “Our students were using Windows 8 on the first day of class. There was no need for training. The students just jumped in and used it right away. Before day one, some of us were concerned about how well the students would adapt to it. After,
we wanted to say, ‘What was all the fuss about?’”
Virtual Machine Density Increases by 50 Percent
To deliver the graphics-intensive applications through the virtualized environment, Georgia Tech had to streamline, if not eliminate, much of the management complexity typically associated with that environment. One way it did that was through its use
of Hyper-V Dynamic Memory, one of the features that had first attracted the college to the VDI solution from Microsoft. With greater flexibility to use memory where it was needed, the college was able to take advantage of the Dell servers and increase the
density of virtual machines per physical host by 50 percent over the density formerly achieved on VMware, with the Hyper-V virtual machines able to consume 4 to 6 GB of memory.
||The combination of RemoteFX with the NVIDIA VGX GPU provided us with an innovative platform. Being able to share video cards among virtual machines is a great plus for us. It helps us better manage costs while providing great performance.
| Didier Contis
Director of Technology Services, Georgia Tech
“Windows Server 2012 with Hyper-V gives us memory management and a manageable solution that works right out of the box,” says Contis.
Unscheduled maintenance windows required to address client hardware failures have shrunk from days to minutes, because the simpler lab hardware is less likely to fail. And the lower cost of the hardware means that the college can more readily maintain a
full stock of replacement parts, avoiding the need to wait while parts are ordered and delivered. The college also sees Microsoft virtualization helping it to minimize the impact of external outages.
Scheduled maintenance windows are smaller, too. New lab images need to be created and deployed at the start of each semester. Previously, the process of deploying the images took hours. Now, it takes minutes. That’s not just good for the IT staff; it’s good
for students, too. “We’re not inconveniencing students as much for the sake of the technology,” says Anderson. “Overall, we’re trading off complexity for agility and flexibility.”
Contis and his colleagues experience more efficient, agile, lower-cost storage with SMB3 than with traditional SAN devices. “As we expand our environment with more hypervisor components, SMB storage will give us greater flexibility and scalability,” says
Contis. “It also fits into a unified Windows Server 2012 environment.”
Cost Per Seat to Decline by Several Hundred Dollars
While Georgia Tech didn’t adopt Windows Server 2012 to reduce costs, it’s seeing that benefit from the migration, too.
“RemoteFX is the only technology that we can use to share video cards among virtual machines,” says Contis. “The combination of RemoteFX with the NVIDIA VGX GPU provided us with an innovative platform. Being able to share video cards among virtual machines
is a great plus for us. It helps us better manage costs while providing great performance.”
The 50 percent greater density in virtual machines per host also helps Georgia Tech to manage costs. Although the college is buying more server hardware on which to run the virtual machines, the greater density of virtual machines reduces the cost of that
hardware per virtual machine, making it more cost-effective to expand the data center. Cost per seat will likely decline by several hundred dollars, Contis estimates.
Operating costs will be lower, too, due to faster deployment of new client images, reduced maintenance needs, and other efficiencies. Contis estimates that his IT department will save about 15 hours a month after the migration is complete.
Even power costs will decline. The traditional lab workstations run on continuous supplies of 150 watts of power. Heating and air conditioning raise power use further. In contrast, the thin clients in the renovated labs use less than 15 watts of power. Contis
estimates conservatively that the college will save 20 percent on power costs.
[The college’s Windows Server 2012/Windows 8 project was launched in partnership with the Georgia Tech Office of Information Technology with CIO Jim O’Connor as a sponsor, and with the assistance of David Leonard, Director
of Architecture and Infrastructure, and his team. Todd Whitehurst, Senior Systems Support Engineer Manager on the Windows Infrastructure Team, also participated.]
Windows Server 2012
Windows Server drives many of the world’s largest data centers, empowers small businesses around the world, and delivers value to organizations of all sizes in between. Building on this legacy, Windows Server 2012 redefines the category, delivering hundreds
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