High-end, specialized software at the click of a mouse or the touch of a screen, available instantly, from either the classroom or the coffee shop, to all at Stevens. Sound impossible?
Not anymore. It's here now.
The new Stevens Virtual Learning Environment (Stevens VLE), unveiled in late August as fall semester classes kicked off across campus, has revolutionized the way Stevens students access software. Created with support from the New Jersey Educational Facilities Authority through a competitive grant program administered by the state’s Office of the Secretary of Higher Education, the Stevens VLE stores more than 45 software applications and packages in a private cloud, updates them automatically and provides them securely to students, faculty and staff instantly upon request.
Almost nobody else in the nation is offering it.
Students can now access a wide range of technical, graphical, computational, creative and other programs without buying expensive individual licenses or purchasing full-feature laptops or personal computers. The VLE is always on and available, on or off campus, via broadband network service including wireless and 4G cellular networks.
"We are one of a very small number of higher ed institutions doing this," explains David Dodd, Stevens' vice president for information technology and chief information officer.
“We wanted this to be a system anyone can use, on any device, regardless of their technical background and without the need for an expensive high-powered laptop," adds Dodd.
Following leading-edge industry's lead
The seed for the idea came when Dodd discovered, in 2013, industry leaders such as Boeing, NASA and Sikorsky were deploying a specialized technology known as graphic virtualization.
"We wanted and needed this technology here as well," he recalls.
To do it, Dodd enlisted a trio from his IT team: Karen Swift, director of user support services at the university; mobile technology expert Frank Filogamo; and user services technician Devin Poore. They contacted vendors, assembled the complex pieces required to make the VLE work, and tested it exhaustively before a fall 2014 trial run.
Now, two years later, it's a reality.
"It's intuitive, accessible and user-friendly," says Dakota Van Deursen '19, a freshman from Kansas City studying chemical engineering. "Overall, I am very pleased with it and how my education has advanced because of it. Graphics and Design would be a real challenge were it not for the VLE. I have been able to perform well in those classes thanks to it."
The applications available — everything from the entire Adobe Creative Cloud including Photoshop and Premiere to SOLIDWORKS, Mathematica, MatLab, Mimics, the Microsoft Office suite and other applications — work on nearly all devices, including netbooks and laptops (even those with minimal memory), tablets and smartphones. All operating systems are supported, including Android, Windows, Linux and Mac.
"I like the idea that a user can increase the computing power of his or her machine without having to undergo major upgrades to either hardware or software," comments Konrad Petelski '18, a civil engineering major. "I see the VLE as a powerful tool with a lot of potential."
To handle the load, the Stevens VLE is powered by 62 enclosed HP "blade" servers in two secure locations, each packing two Intel Xeon E5 multi-core processors. To distribute the constant streams of network traffic and avoid overloading any single server, the VLE also deploys four Citrix NetScalers, which provide load balancing and support high availability.
Additional back-end software powering the Stevens VLE includes Citrix XenDesktop Enterprise and Citrix Director — the core softwares creating the virtual environment — as well as RES Software One Workspace, Liquidware Stratosphere UX (to monitor and troubleshoot the system) and Login VSI (a software specially crafted for testing virtual desktops).
"This is all state-of-the-art technology," notes Dodd. "We're grateful for the state's support, and the university's foresight and support, in enabling us to go best-in-class here."
The package of accessible softwares will continue to grow over time, he adds, and will soon include specialized professional software packages used in music technology and biomedical engineering, among other disciplines.
"The Stevens VLE is without a doubt reshaping the ways we teach and learn at our institution and beyond," Dodd concludes. "This new technology enhances the student and faculty experience, controls our computing infrastructure costs and frees up vital resources for more strategic purposes. It is truly a win-win."