Goodbye Desktop Computers – Hello VDI!
Vol.3 Issue 7
Example of a Student’s Login Screen using a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) terminal at the FAA Academy.

It's hard to imagine a futuristic FAA workplace without computers at nearly every desk. The classroom desks at FAA Academy are certainly no exception. Our contemporary reliance on conventional PC’s in the classroom often presents unique challenges to both instructors and students alike.

A student's hardware problem or Windows glitch can greatly disrupt the best-laid lesson plan. Instructors and other IT support personnel must often spend a great deal of time maintaining the machines in the classrooms to ensure that the academic integrity and standardization of the files are made available to their students. In addition, students must find secure ways to manipulate files between their stay-in-place classroom machines and their government-issued mobile devices, if they wish to study outside of classroom. Providing a working computer at every position in classrooms across the Academy requires considerable costs, followed by triennial out-of-warranty replacements which exceed our shrinking budgetary allowance.

Virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, can solve many Academy-specific challenges, while providing a significant cost savings over the life cycle of the equipment. Having observed the numerous advantages this technology offers to the customer base, teams within the Regulatory Standards Division (AMA-200) and the Technical Operations Training Division (AMA-400) have been working to transition their customer base from conventional Windows machines to virtual desktops.

In a VDI deployment, users will no longer find a fully-fledged computer at every desk. Instead, the Windows desktop experience is provided by a powerful server handling multiple users at a time. End-users can access their Windows desktop accordingly from practically anywhere, using many types of devices, including government-issued secured mobile devices.

In the Academy classroom, standalone workstations will typically be replaced by terminal hardware that looks to the untrained eye like a commonplace computer monitor. This device is effectively just a monitor for the end user's Windows desktop, which is being delivered remotely by the server. These terminals have an average useful lifespan of 8-10 years, costing only a fraction of even a modest desktop PC, and can be instantly moved or replaced with almost no configuration required, thus significantly reducing any down-time a student may experience in a classroom and drastically reducing an instructor’s time in loading curriculum or ‘cleaning’ information from PCs after each class.

Instructor Mike Folsom teaches Surface Weather System to a 12-person resident section class using AMA-400’s Beta VDI Deployment in June 2017.

VDI is becoming increasingly popular in the business workplace, with a number of competing products available. AMA-400's VDI deployment uses the latest Citrix XenDesktop technology, which was carefully selected as the best product to meet the demands of the organization.

Under XenDesktop, instructors can make new or modified files available to all enrolled students instantaneously. The instructor needs only to save or drop a file into a single, easy-to-use location, which is just as easy to reuse for later offerings of the same course.

The virtual Windows machines hosted on the server are started from the equivalent of a fresh, clean installation of Windows every time they boot up. If a student's virtual machine develops problems under Windows, the student can simply log out and back in again, and all of Windows’ problems will disappear.

However, the student's personal files-- from all courses in which they are currently enrolled-- will still be made immediately available, no matter how many times they switch between virtual machines. The same Windows desktop is available to the student, no matter what classroom or terminal they use to access their own resident-course desktop.

(L-R) AMA-400 VDI beta-testing instructors: Sammy Brence, Mike Strandberg, and Mike Folsom.

The Technical Operations Training Division has completed several beta VDI deployments in Academy classrooms throughout 2017, successfully meeting the last project milestone en route to full-scale VDI deployment. Instructors Sammy Brence, Mike Strandberg, and Mike Folsom have been among the first to try AMA-400’s beta-stage VDI deployment in their resident courses. All have enthusiastically reported positive results—along with much cooler and quieter classrooms in the absence of all of those conventional PCs.

The VDI team continues to work behind the scenes to offer the best possible VDI experience to its customer base on rollout. In the fall, the technology will be made available to multiple classrooms throughout the Technical Operations Training Division. VDI will offer vast improvements in classroom operational time, student mobility, and with instructor maintenance time, while also delivering significant short and long-term cost savings.

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