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Did you know that the “computers” that you are use in the computer labs on the first and second floor of Gleeson Library and in the Psychology department in Kalmanovitz Hall aren’t real computers? Eerie, right? But no, aliens have not come onto campus and mind warped you into thinking that what you were working on were computers, when they weren’t. Rather, it was the geniuses of the ITS department that have switched out the regular computers that you’re used to, with something called virtual computers. Before you get ahead of yourself, no, virtual computers aren’t invisible computers.

Let me ask you a question — the last time you were in these specific labs, did you see a big rectangular box on the table next to you or under the desk, next to your feet? Probably not, because IT’S NOT THERE! Ooh, now it sounds like I’m mind warping you. After all, this big rectangular box is the actual computer where all of the processing takes place. The reason that you probably haven’t noticed this is because you don’t typically interact with this device in a lab — all you use is the screen, keyboard, and mouse. So how could you be on a computer, without having a computer? And that’s what I’m getting it. They’re not traditional computers — they’re virtual computers.

Taylor Jackson in Virtual Computer Lab

Taylor Jackson uses a virtual computer in one of the Gleeson Library computer labs

Some of the more observant of you might have noticed that there’s a tiny rectangular box strapped to the base of your screen. If you haven’t seen this box, don’t feel bad because it’s only about eight inches long, four inches wide, and one inch deep, and lab users who don’t know what it is, could confuse it with some type of security device.

The small box is called a thin-client, and it is a simple, really tiny computer with no hard drive. On its own, the thin client can’t do basic computer functions like opening and using a Word document or Excel spreadsheet (the horror!) but don’t fret; the thin client can still connect to the Internet.

To make up for its limited functionality, the thin client connects through the campus network to something called a server which supplies its operating system and the applications you want to use. This server is a little like iCloud. The servers make it possible for the thin-clients to do almost everything a normal computer can do. These are called virtual desktop environments.

The thin client has an earphone jack, a microphone jack, and USB ports. To save your documents, you can plug in your thumb drive and drag your documents onto it. Or, you can upload them into your Dons Apps (Google Drive) or email them to yourself.

The downside with this is that all of the thin clients in all of the on-campus labs run off of the servers in the ITS datacenter. This means that if too much high-powered performance is required from the servers at the same time, the thin clients will function slowly because everyone in that lab will be using the server. This is because you are not given the whole server for yourself. Rather, you share it with the other thin client users. Therefore, it is suggested that you use a real computer for applications like Photoshop that require large amounts of memory and processing power.

Because of such performance considerations, Michael Ong, ITS director of Enterprise Systems Infrastructure, is not recommending the replacement of all of the computer labs with virtual computers. Rather, ITS is rolling them out gradually, so that they can gauge the type of usage students put the lab computers through to ensure the environment is able to provide them with the best user experience. ITS will monitor what the students need, and fine-tune the server capacity and resources for the virtual desktop environment.

Another reason that not all of the labs can be converted into virtual desktop environments at this time is because many classes take place in labs, and so the entire lab is starting up at the same time. Therefore the lab is going to need faster processing while handling a concurrent volume in order to reduce the time for the system to load everything for them. (This is called a boot storm.)

Because the thin-clients are so simple compared to full computers, they are significantly cheaper. They only use 11 watts of energy in comparison to the 200 watts that a typical computer uses, saving the University energy costs. If you read our previous blog post Computer replacements to return to three- and four-year cycles, you’ll know that all University-owned computers have a specific useful life, and then they must be replaced on a regular basis. But because thin clients have very few parts, they have a much longer life, and so they don’t need a replacement cycle. Also, only the few “real” computers (in the datacenter) that the virtual computers connect to need to be managed and taken care of. This lowers the cost of administration because rather than maintaining software and security on hundreds of computers, ITS only has to manage the central servers.

So the initial price of buying the thin clients and its servers costs more money, but the ongoing lower maintenance and energy costs of these virtual computers makeup for it. That way, the money can be recycled back to fund a variety of new, upcoming projects to add or improve technology for the USF community.

Basically, virtual computers are awesome.

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