McMaster students get thin clients in new snazzy lab

McMaster University’s new elliptical-shaped engineering computer lab, outfit with desktop virtualization and state-of-the-art air, heating and cooling mechanisms saves approximately $29,000 annually in electrical and thermal costs, according to the institution’s manager of IT and services.

“We’ve been told by a number of very high-level resources that we are running the first and only 3D-modeling virtualized environment in the world,” said Michael Curwin.

In operation for a year now, the Engineering Technology Building is a computer lab for first-year engineering courses where 55 thin clients run, among other applications, the very power-consumptive software that is Autodesk Inventor for creating 3D images. “Being CAD (Computer Aided Design)-based, (it’s) very, very difficult to virtualize that for the most part,” said Curwin.

With only a gigabit of bandwidth for the entire building (the lab plus other tenants), the ability for the virtual machines to handle peak loads was particularly valuable. “If each of the clients in the lab were consuming a lot of bandwidth, it would drastically impact the entire building, and in all likelihood this project would not have happened,” said Curwin.

The 125,000-square-foot LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) Gold building—the first institution building in Ontario to meet the requirements—cuts power consumption by 91 per cent compared to the structure it replaced. Besides desktop virtualization, rainwater gets harvested for drinking and waste water, and the air system maintains an interior fresh air rate of a 100 per cent at all times.

Curwin said the expectation was, at best, a 50 per cent reduction in power usage but “we were stunned by the power savings … 91 per cent, that kind of blew us away.”

The lab uses desktop virtualization technology from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware Inc. David Toonders, director of systems engineering for VMware Canada Inc., said academia is becoming one of the company’s leading verticals given the need for dynamic and secure deployment of tasks.

“It’s a pretty huge capital and labour-intensive environment when you have to deal with physical desktops throughout the school,” said Toonders.

Looking at virtualization in general, Toonders said academia is one of VMware’s early adopters given the issue of cost-efficient data centre management in that vertical.

Moving forward, plans are to extend the success with desktop virtualization in the lab to other areas within the faculty of engineering. Already, there has been ample positive feedback from students who like the usability and performance of thin clients, said Spencer Smith, director of engineering 1 for McMaster University. “They don’t even know, unless we tell them, that it’s a virtualized room,” said Smith.

The added educational benefit here is the excitement and curiosity among students about virtualization and being able to work atop such an IT infrastructure. “This is an example we can show to the students, ‘Look where the future’s going, look what we’ve accomplished,’” said Smith.

And, students who are environmentally inclined can very directly monitor the building’s green operations via the Web.

Follow Kathleen Lau on Twitter: @KathleenLau

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