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Remote application delivery overhaul reins in university's sprawl

So many applications, so little time. That's what one university was facing when it decided to revamp its entire physical and virtual desktop computing environment.

IT leaders at Northern Arizona University took one look at their inventory of employee applications and realized they needed to streamline their desktop computing resources.

Tobias Kreidl, desktop computing team lead at the university, discovered that staff were accessing more than 100 desktop images and 800 individual applications. It turned out that only six applications were common to all desktops; the rest were specific to certain users or departments.

"How were we going to manage all of these applications?" Kreidl said. "The first step is to evaluate what it is that you have to deal with."

Improved image management and remote application delivery technologies, including Microsoft Remote Desktop Services (RDS) and App-V, helped save the day. Based on that success, the university is now looking to upgrade and possibly expand its use of VDI.

Virtualization improves remote application delivery

As the first step in the project, Kreidl's team created one base desktop image with core apps that all users needed, such as Microsoft Office, a web browser and Adobe Reader.

"Why bloat images with things that people only use on an occasional basis or only a few people ... use?" Kreidl said.

The first step is to evaluate what it is that you have to deal with.
Tobias Kreidldesktop computing team lead, Northern Arizona University

But users still needed other applications depending on their roles, and that's where remote application delivery shone.

To make access to some of those apps easier, the IT team turned to RDS. Consolidating RDS servers into pools allowed the university to continue offering a multitude of apps needed by different departments, because these servers can host a large number of remote applications. Plus, pooling licenses for multiple applications onto one RDS licensing server made it easier for IT to manage the licenses from one place, Kreidl said.

Still, RDS isn't an ideal way to deliver all applications because it creates a full remote desktop session for each user even if they only want to access a single application, Kreidl said. That creates a lot of resource overhead, while tools such as Citrix XenApp and Microsoft App-V instead can launch single applications.

"You can therefore get a higher density on servers that run individual applications versus having to create a login session for each connected user," Kreidl said.

For large applications or ones not commonly used, the team went with App-V, which it already had a license for through other Microsoft products. Kreidl and his colleagues identified more than 300 applications as App-V candidates and are almost done preparing most of those for delivery.

"It's great because you're not clogging up your internal registry," Kreidl said.

For any remaining applications that only a few users require and can't be delivered through RDS or App-V, the IT department will install them directly on users' machines.

"That is a last resort, and we think it will be a very small number," Kreidl said.

A boost for Mac management

IT manages all Windows desktops and applications with Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager. The university also supports some Apple Mac computers and used its desktop overhaul as an opportunity to revisit management of those machines as well, adopting a free tool called DeployStudio. It doesn't offer a lot of bells and whistles but works well enough, allowing for basic creation and distribution of Mac images, Kreidl said.

The IT department recently got more funding for Mac management, so it's looking to implement Jamf Pro for more advanced features such as more granular control over Mac provisioning, he said. For instance, Jamf offers IT the ability to customize security policies and user experience settings for users' devices, as well as more options for deploying Mac images to devices.

Implementation of all the new desktop images and remote application delivery methods is still in progress, so the results remain to be seen, but overall the project has helped immensely to streamline end-user computing management, Kreidl said.

Eye on virtual desktops

To provide virtual desktops and applications to students, the university runs about 500 instances of Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp on XenServer, with primarily Dell Wyse thin clients as the endpoints in libraries and other common areas. The next project in this area will be a thin client hardware upgrade.

"These are getting long in the tooth and ripe for being replaced," Kreidl said.

For now, Kreidl's team is focusing on a pilot for NVIDIA GRID graphics cards on servers running XenApp to accelerate graphics-intensive apps that students need. In the future, if the VDI cost model looks good, the university could start to deliver more virtualized resources to faculty as well, Kreidl said. In particular, he's interested in considering cheap thin clients, such as Raspberry Pi, for future projects, as well as finding a way to virtually deliver Skype for Business, which many employees use.

When it comes to desktop and app delivery for a large environment, it seems an IT pro's work is never done.

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