Virtual Computer Lab Makes Specialized Software Available Anytime, Anywhere

Posted: August 14, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Nick Walker

For anyone who has ever spent hundreds of dollars on specialized computer software or had to wait in line to use Mason’s computer labs, the Division of Instructional Technology (DoIT) has an innovative solution.

The Virtual Computing Lab, which will be piloted in select Mason departments early this fall, will enable participants to access specialized software from any broadband-connected computer in the world.

“It’s not just about building new labs anymore,” says Sharon Pitt, executive director of DoIT.

“We’re talking about creating a new computing environment. Anyone can access software such as Adobe Creative Suite, AutoCAD, Mathematica or GIS from their home, dorm room or the local Panera Bread. The idea is that it won’t be necessary to come to campus during lab hours to use these applications.”

The Virtual Computing Lab is a statewide initiative with 14 schools across the Commonwealth of Virginia. All one needs is a web browser, as the computationally intensive tasks are performed on a vast array of servers. Therefore, users will be able to use older computers and still run the latest software versions.

“Virtual labs never close,” says John Savage, a systems engineer and project manager of the Virtual Computing Lab. “At other schools, we’ve noticed a surprising number of students who like to use the labs between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m.”

Savage explains several other key advantages of a virtual computing environment.

“You are logged in as the administrator, so you can do whatever you want with the computer,” Savage says. “When you log out, everything is erased, and a new image is created for the next user. The system automatically connects to your local drives and printers for seamless integration.”

It’s also possible to reserve a virtual application hours or days ahead of time.

“Software licenses aren’t unlimited,” Pitt says. “If a school pays for 10 people to use ARC-GIS, the system can’t allow 20 people to log in and run that program. But if you reserve an application in advance, you know it will be available when you are ready to use it. Also, a faculty member could reserve multiple copies to use for a class.”

Software that is deployed via a virtual computing lab costs less per use, as the software license is available seven days a week, 24 hours a day, says Pitt.

“If we find out 10 licenses are enough, we don’t need more. If we find that requests are routinely denied, we can purchase more.”

Initially, the Virtual Computer Lab will offer applications needed to support the academic programs participating in the pilot rollout.

“The list of all possible applications available down the road could truly consist of any and all academic software made available for student use,” says Savage. “It really just depends on what is required and makes sense for our academic programs at any given time.”

To access the Virtual Computer Lab, a user will login to a reservation system with his or her ID. After login, one can select the type of operating system and application software desired as well as the time for those resources to be made available. An Internet address for the user’s virtual system, a user ID and a password are generated by the system and provided to the user at the time of login.

“At that point you have a computer waiting for your use, no matter the time of day or where you happen to be,” says Savage.

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