Virtual Computing Laboratory delivers IT resources on demand

At North Carolina State University (NCSU), requesting IT services couldn’t be simpler, thanks to cloud-computing. 

If, every Monday at 10 a.m., a professor needs 20 computers that have Windows, Microsoft Office, and SolidWorks on them, for instance, the professor simply goes to a web page and chooses from a menu to make group reservations that repeat throughout the semester.

Using the same web page, a faculty researcher could ask for a combination of an Apache server, a database server, and an application server. Or, he or she could ask for a computational cluster or even a low-end supercomputer.

"That can all be done in a very smooth way by essentially going to the web," said Mladen Vouk, head of computer science and associate vice president for information technology at NCSU. "For the end users, it’s very easy to use."

Faculty can pick applications, a platform or groups of platforms, or whatever they need for IT resources, and request them either right now or for some time in the future. The options presented in the menu vary based on a user’s privileges.

The cloud-computing software, or platform, that allows this functionality is NSCU’s Virtual Computing Laboratory (VCL). Software as a Service (SaaS) is only a fraction of what VCL is capable of.

"The platform we use…allows you to construct any type of cloud you wish," Vouk said. "You can construct what we call a high-end terabyte cloud, which is different, for instance, from an application cloud or something else."

VCL is a general solution that asks: What would you like to use? Would you like a physical environment, would you like a virtual environment that has particular characteristics, or would you like application software? Or, would you just like to do calculations?

"It really depends on how the end user wishes to use it," Vouk said.

The software also keeps track of who has asked for what resources, how long the reservations are for, whether there is enough capacity to fulfill requests, and whether there are any conflicts–in which case, one party gets a message to make the reservation in the future.

NCSU has 30,000 students and faculty. "Half of our customers might be doing high-performance computing jobs for our researchers or some other researchers in the States, and the other half might be doing what we call single-seat or multi-seat," Vouk said.

NCSU’s data center is made up of 2,000 IBM blade servers, plus some other components to VCL that use HP or Sun machines. The data center is distributed across four places in Research Triangle Park, N.C.

"It’s not limited to blades, but we have found blades to be very, very efficient and cost-effective," Vouk said. He estimates that one blade server can serve 25 students at a time.

Compared to a traditional computer lab, the school’s virtual computing resources and software get more use, because they can be used 24-7.

"You can use it anytime; you can use it from home, you can use it much later, you don’t have to physically show up in the lab," Vouk said, "so you increase the efficiency and usage."

IT staff can buy software licenses based on actual usage, not the number of computers sitting in a lab. "In our case, if we know there are no more than five people using a particular piece of software at a time, then we only need to buy five licenses," Vouk said.

Managing a cloud system requires fewer staff, too, which also results in a huge cost savings.

"With cloud computing, because of the way it’s organized and centralized in roughly a few places, you can actually manage, with one person, thousands and thousands of machines without any problem at all," Vouk said.

NCSU has two to three full-time equivalents managing 2,000 blade servers and 30,000 student and faculty accounts, which is considerably less than the school would need to manage software on desktop machines and in computer labs. Vouk estimates NCSU would need at least 10 to 15 full-time equivalents in that case.

"We don’t get rid of people, we simply have the same IT staff do the next advanced things that we want to do," Vouk said.

Having a strong network is crucial to the success of cloud computing. NCSU has strong security and authorization and monitors its network regularly.

"We have not had a single security incident," Vouk said. "Someone may have accidentally infected [their machine]–but they next time they reload the image, they are clean."

NCSU offers pilot accounts to others who might be interested in looking into VCL, Vouk said. Interested parties can go to to read more about VCL and to send a request for a test account.

At NCSU, cloud computing has increased access to computing resources for all students. It’s easier and more flexible, Vouk said.

"It really increases the productivity of both the students and the information technology personnel considerably. We have seen…both educational benefits and technological benefits, in terms of savings," he said.

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