Quick IT work kept campus computers available

Departmental computer labs on campus have been empty during the COVID-19 crisis, but they haven't all been idle. Thanks to some quick work by information technology services (ITS) and College of Engineering IT staff, students have easy access to the computing power and specialized software available on machines in some locked campus labs.

Remote computer access -- also known as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) -- has been offered at Iowa State for years, though usage has been limited and sporadic, said Jason Shuck, ITS systems operations manager. Users had to connect via a virtual private network (VPN), and virtual labs were emulated on central university servers.  

"It wasn't 50 physical machines. It was 50 sessions students could log into," said Cory Johns, College of Engineering IT manager.

With the rapid shift to online instruction in mid-March, ITS and Engineering IT leapt at a proposal to simplify and improve virtual labs by dropping the VPN requirement and connecting users directly to physical computers in labs using the VDI software VMware Horizon.

"That immediately made the barriers to connection vanish," Shuck said.

The 1-to-1 connection with a dedicated computer and video card means better performance, from a computer loaded with licensed software students may use in coursework -- intensive graphics or modeling programs, for instance. With simplified access that was a necessity in some cases, VDI usage soared. About 1,600 students used a virtual lab computer after spring break, when Engineering and ITS staff made the switch in about two days, Shuck said.

Access was provided to 700 computers running in 15 campus labs. Of those, about 500 of the computers were in College of Engineering labs. Other major users included Design and Human Sciences colleges, Shuck said. Depending on the lab, faculty and staff also may have access, though it's primarily a service for students.

Students can connect to lab computers with almost anything that has a strong internet connection, including old laptops, tablets and smartphones. A student showed Shuck how he could use a powerful 3-D modeling program on his iPad, for instance.

"It doesn't really matter what you're connecting with," Johns said.

Some version of providing virtual access to on-campus lab computers is likely to continue in the fall and beyond, Shuck said. Staff are exploring options for in-person and virtual access co-existing.

"I think if we can get the process nailed down, others are going to want to do this because they just have computers sitting there at night. Why not get some value out of it?" he said.