Anyone old enough to remember a college campus or a workplace devoid of computers will probably remember when, and how, the digital age first arrived at their school or company. At a time when personal computers were just a gleam in the eye of an engineer somewhere, large mainframes began to pop up, connected to their end users via terminals to interact with the stored information.

The PC revolution soon changed everything, transforming all users into islands of information and efficiency unto themselves, the function of each unit reliant solely on itself. Next came the network, uniting PCs into small communities capable of sharing data with one another, thanks to local area network (LAN) software. More recently, client-server applications, where all work is performed by the server and the results relayed back to the PCs, became increasingly popular.

The latest trend in computing, particularly among higher education technology administrators, represents a bit of a journey back to the future: Virtual Desk Infrastructure (VDI). A new and improved mainframe-terminal concept of computing, VDI lends the illusion that the user is operating a PC, while all of the applications in play are actually running on the server. A server powerful enough to run as many as 100 concurrent virtual sessions or more on “zero client” devices (computing units without storage) can cost tens of thousands of dollars, a substantial initial investment, but the savings quickly mount.

Zero client units are ready for service practically in as much time as it takes to plug in a monitor, keyboard and mouse. They require minimal maintenance, and, with no resident apps or data, they’re basically impervious to viruses and malware. They also have a longer lifespan than the average notebook or desktop, as well as the capability of allowing students to connect to them remotely, via their own devices.

“We're using VDI very heavily,” says Michael Mathews, CIO and associate vice president for innovation and technology at Oral Roberts University (ORU), in Oklahoma. “I've used it in other places, corporate and educational, as well.”

Mathews explains that the primary reason he decided to invest in a VDI environment was to lower the cost of supplying the entire campus with computers. “When you're on a university campus,” he continues, “you're not only supplying staff with computers; you're putting them in labs, you're putting them in libraries, you’re making a lot available through registration period. And VDI has not only helped our campus lower the cost of compute power for standard programs, it also provides a huge security benefit.”

It would be highly unusual for any new technology to be universally embraced by the technology administration community, and VDI is no different. “First of all,” says Richie Crim, information technology strategist and CIO at Lord Fairfax Community College in Virginia, “It’s never cheaper. In some cases, you realize some savings in manpower hours.” Crim is also wary of the single point of failure inherent in the standard VDI setup. “If a single workstation dies,” he explains, “one person's productivity lost. In a VDI environment, you could affect 50-plus users, easily more.”

There are other factors that seem to say, “proceed with caution” when it comes to VDI, including the cost of bringing in employees with the expertise and experience required to maintain the system. “I can pay a help desk technician a reasonable wage to work on desktop computers,” Crim asserts, “but if I need someone who knows VDI, who knows VM (virtual machine) environment, it could be a six-figure position, and I'm going to need multiple of those to run a full VDI operation.” While zero client terminals seem to last slightly longer than traditional desktop units, the VDI equipment has significantly lower, if any, resale value. “There’s no demand for a dated VDI system, but even after five years, I can get trade-in value from Apple, or $50-$100 per unit for desktops and laptops,” Crim asserts.

Despite the strong sentiments on both sides of the VDI issue, a clear consensus does exist, that, under certain circumstances, VDI can provide an ideal solution. Whether or not those circumstances are prevalent enough in a college campus to warrant the significant investment a VDI system represents can only be ascertained through an evaluation of the system and its intended application, conducted by an expert with a thorough familiarity of both.