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Mercer University

Mercer University: Unidesk Powers Campus-Wide Borderless Classroom VDI Initiative

Mercer University is one of Americaʼs oldest and most distinctive institutions of higher learning. Unidesk and Cisco UCS are the foundation for the university's successful “Borderless Classroom” VDI initiative.

Mercer University

"People go into VDI thinking of it as a cost savings opportunity, but itʼs more. Itʼs about efficiency. Itʼs about providing a better desktop experience for faculty, students and staff. The management simplicity offered by Unidesk is enabling us here at Mercer to realize VDI's full potential."

Michael Belote
CIO, Mercer University

The "Borderless Classroom"

Mercer University offers rigorous programs that span undergraduate liberal arts to doctoral-level degrees. The university is known for pioneering innovative ways to enhance the educational experience. The Mercer University School of Medicine is nationally recognized for its clinical and problem-based learning approaches, and for educating physicians to meet the health care needs of medically under-served rural areas. Mercerʼs Center for Collaborative Journalism combines Mercerʼs liberal arts-based journalism and media studies program with the professional expertise of The Telegraph, Georgiaʼs third-largest daily newspaper, and Georgia Public Broadcasting, the third-largest public broadcaster in the country.

These and other programs require that students go beyond the lecture hall, and work in small groups to learn independently or hands-on with actual cases. Achieving this – and taking it to Mercerʼs schools in cities such as Macon, Savannah, and Columbus – requires a virtualized, distance learning program that gives students, teachers and staff a consistent experience.

Meanwhile, like many universities in today’s economic climate, Mercer's IT staff is tasked with doing more with less. This, plus continual growth in disparate locales, led Mercer to look at Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) as the foundation for its “Borderless Classroom” initiative. Mercer has been virtualizing its servers for ten years, and has realized significant cost savings in power usage, space, resources, and capital expenditure. The time had come to extend those benefits to the thousands of desktops distributed across Mercerʼs multiple campuses throughout Georgia.

"One oft the things we're shooting for with VDI is to provide the best possible computing experience possible for our students, faculty, and staff," says Michael Belote, Chief Technology Officer at Mercer.


The Mercer University IT team explains how Cisco and Unidesk are powering their "Borderless Classroom" VDI initiative, now in production with more than 1,000 desktops.

The VDI Solution

The Mercer IT team spent more than a year vetting solutions, looking at various designs and options, and running a “weekend warrior” pilot program with its lean resources. Comments Belote, "There has been a huge evolution in VDI over the past 15-18 months led by innovative companies like Unidesk."

Mercer was assisted in its evaluation of VDI technologies by its trusted vendor and Unidesk technology alliance partner Cisco.

Ultimately, Mercer chose Cisco UCS Blade Servers as its data center platform. To create and manage the virtual desktops, package and deliver the many lab applications, and optimize storage, Mercer implemented Unidesk. Together, Cisco UCS, Unidesk, and VMware Horizon form the backbone of Mercer's multi-campus desktop virtualization initiative.

Going Imageless

Shane Milam, Executive Director of Technology Infrastructure Services at Mercer, had high hopes that VDI would reduce the amount of time spent on Windows image management. Explains Milam, "With our physical PCs, it was not uncommon to have 1 image to patch and update for each lab, and sometimes more than 1 image."

Mercer's initial VDI proof of concept, however, did not make image management any easier. "This was one of the reasons we wanted Unidesk," adds Milam. "With Unidesk layers, images go away. We have just 1 OS layer for over 1,000 desktops, even with our mix of non-persistent VMs for labs and persistent VMs for faculty and staff. A single, clean Windows 7 64-bit operating system OS layer is the gold standard for our entire environment."

Faster Application Delivery

Like most universities, Mercer has a large number of diverse applications that need to be delivered to different labs. This process was highly inefficient before Unidesk. Comments Brent Walker, Help Desk Advanced Level Support Manager at Mercer University, "Faculty would have to notify us 6 weeks in advance that they needed a new version of some software. We'd have to plan for it, find a break that was coming up, and it could take a week in some cases to get the software tested and deployed. Sometimes, we'd just have to tell them to wait until the next semester."

Application delivery has radically improved with Unidesk and VDI. Mercer IT administrators can package any application as a reusable Unidesk “layer” in minutes, without special know-how. Layers can be distributed to some or all desktops, without storage duplication on every virtual machine. Yet to Windows and to each application, the shared application layers look like they are locally installed.

Accuplacer; Blackboard Transact; Canon, Epson, and HP printer drivers; Adobe Reader; Decision Tools Suite; GIMP image manipulation; HighPoints Math; LockDown Browser; Longman Preparation Course; Peachtree accounting; Inspiration visual learning; SAS; SPSS; Quicktime; Respondus exam management; and Visual C++ are just some of the applications that are layered into Mercer's lab desktops with Unidesk.

Adds Walker, "All my guys love Unidesk. We love the agility of it, how quickly and easily we can deploy software anywhere on our widely dispersed campus. We can layer an app from anywhere, filter our Unidesk admin console view to the 30-40 desktops in a lab, do a few clicks to assign the app, let the desktops rebuild, and we're done. Those last-minute requests from professors for a new app before the start of tomorrow's class can now be easily satisfied."

Realizing VDI's Full Potential

Mercer has now deployed 1,000 desktops, with more planned. As desktops are provisioned with Unidesk, they are added to the appropriate pools through the Unidesk brokering connector for VMware Horizon. Students, faculty, and staff access their Unidesk desktops using the PCoIP protocol and supported client devices, including LG thin clients and re-purposed PCs.

As a Cisco Validated Design (CVD) partner, Unidesk snaps into Cisco's virtual machine (VM) reference architecture without change. Like the desktops it creates and manages, Unidesk is deployed as a set of software-only VMs on Mercer's Cisco UCS-based data center platform.

Says Milam, "Our Unidesk-managed VDI environment has not only improved day-to-day desktop administration, but it is also setting us up for the future in so many ways. It will help us solve life cycle management. It will help us solve service management."

Concludes Belote, "People go into VDI thinking of it as a cost savings opportunity, but itʼs more. Itʼs about efficiency. Itʼs about providing a better desktop experience for faculty, students and staff. The management simplicity offered by Unidesk is enabling us here at Mercer to realize VDI's full potential."

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Deployment Details

  • Connectivity
    VMware Horizon
  • Management
    Unidesk
  • Hypervisor
    VMware vSphere
  • Server
    Cisco
  • Storage
    EMC
  • Persistent Desktops
    785
  • Non-Persistent Desktops
    220
  • Users
    3000
  • App Layers
    120
  • More Info
  • All use cases - students, labs, faculty, staff
  • Key apps delivered as Unidesk layers - Accuplacer; Blackboard Transact; Canon, Epson, and HP printer drivers; Adobe Reader; Decision Tools Suite; GIMP image manipulation; HighPoints Math; LockDown Browser; Longman Preparation Course; Peachtree accounting; Inspiration visual learning; SAS; SPSS; Quicktime; Respondus exam management; Visual C++

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