How a Top University in Scotland Expanded Remote Teaching Tech During a Crisis

Growing reliance on end-user computing technologies – such as virtual desktop infrastructure and desktop as a service – drove Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University to evolve their data center into an enterprise cloud operation that supports online learning needs of students and staff through the coronavirus crisis – and beyond.

By Calvin Hennick

By Calvin Hennick February 18, 2021

Aberdeen’s Robert Gordon University (RGU) is one of Scotland’s leading institutions of higher education, emphasizing professional and technical fields such as computing, architecture, engineering, and design. In 2021, the school was named “Scottish University of the Year,” and it ranks among the country’s top higher education institutions for graduate employment and student satisfaction.

Technology lies at the heart of RGU’s research and instruction. To keep students and faculty happy and productive, the university relies on end-user computing (EUC) tools such as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and desktop as a service (DaaS). The school’s EUC environment has not only helped it to navigate the COVID pandemic but has long supported a wide array of diverse stakeholders and workloads.

“Being a university, we have a huge, huge range of applications,” Timon Watson, End User Computing team lead at RGU, said in a recent online event. 

“We look after well over 1,500 applications, and that ranges from your simple word processing programs up to some pretty big, intensive engineering applications. The architecture department alone is using tools like SolidWorks, ArchiCAD, Revit, and all of those. So it’s a broad range of users and a broad range of applications.”


The Remote Desktop Technician Behind Distance Learning

Watson said end-user computing in RGU is quite a broad concept.

“We cover not just the virtual apps and desktops, but all the physical ones as well. So we’ve got a larger estate. We have around 17,000 users in total, between staff and students, and we use Citrix primarily as our solution for virtual apps and desktops.”

Architecting an Effective EUC Environment

All students and staff have access to RGU’s EUC environment, and they can access it both remotely from their own devices and on campus via Windows-based thin clients. Before COVID hit, around 80 percent of the school’s EUC user base was on campus.

For cost and performance reasons, RGU runs its entire EUC environment on-premise rather than in the public cloud. 

“It’s cost-prohibitive for us to run that kind of workload in the cloud,” Watson said. “Particularly due to the GPU requirements, we run it on-premises.”

The university’s Citrix environment is currently running on traditional IT architecture, but the school is in the process of transitioning to hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI) through Nutanix. The benefits of HCI include simplified deployment, modular growth, and streamlined management.

Over the past year, RGU has deployed DaaS through Nutanix Frame, allowing the university to better support users who require a higher level of performance.

“One of the challenges that we’ve had is, we’ve got areas of our student body that we previously haven’t really covered very well with our virtual apps and desktops,” Watson said. “That’s been the architecture, the engineering, and the computing students. And that's primarily been because they’re using very challenging applications with very high CPU and memory requirements – and particularly GPU requirements. It’s always been technically challenging, so this was an area that we wanted to address.”

Initially, Watson said, the university planned to use Frame to support general education courses. However, that plan shifted when COVID made it necessary to support intensive use cases in a remote learning model.

“Now, it’s our architecture students who are using it because they are our most demanding users,” Watson said. “They’re doing design work, and they need that visual fidelity and responsiveness. It not only has to look good, but it’s got to have low latency, and that’s where Frame has been really good for us.”

‘An Ideal Solution’

The use of DaaS has proven especially useful for an RGU graduate apprenticeship program aimed at filling skills gaps that have been identified in the industry. The target demographic is already employed full-time, and participants’ employers are supposed to provide them with the software and computing resources necessary for the program. In practice, however, that responsibility often falls to the university.

“Participants would go to their corporate IT departments, who said, ‘No way we’re installing that on our network,’” Watson said. “So looking for clientless access and something that was browser-based was quite a big advantage. A lot of the subjects that we’re covering are in the architecture and engineering disciplines, which had high GPU requirements, and so Frame was an ideal solution for that.”


How Cloud Computing Delivers Classrooms to Remote Students

The COVID crisis has highlighted the performance and simplicity benefits of the school’s EUC solutions. 

“When we were testing with one of our lecturers, he was concerned that it was so good, the students would never want to come back on campus,” Watson said. “They were really pleased with that, and the support calls we’ve had coming in for Frame have been substantially lower.”

And from an administrative perspective, Watson said, supporting end-users has never been easier. “It’s almost unbelievable how simple it is,” he said. “I have a colleague who had not seen any of the tech demos or webinars for Frame. He’d always managed to be on holiday or doing something else. I gave him a 15-minute run-through and then just left him with it, and he was pretty much up and running.”

That sort of ease was much appreciated, Watson said, during an “extremely challenging” year. 

“The Frame install was something that we did when we had spare time,” he added. “It was just a couple hours here and a couple of hours there, and still, we got it up and running so fast.”

Calvin Hennick is a contributing writer. His work appears in BizTech, Engineering Inc., The Boston Globe Magazine and elsewhere. He is also the author of Once More to the Rodeo: A Memoir. Follow him on Twitter @CalvinHennick.

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