Purdue University plans for post-PC era

Aggressive cost cutting means extending virtualization to desktop

When Gerry McCartney, the CIO and vice president of IT at Purdue University, looks around his West Lafayette, Ind. university campus, he doesn't see a future for the desktop PC. He sees a multitude of mobile devices and a university wireless network that gets 30,000 unique visitors a month.

Mobility, in a word, rules.

McCartney doesn't know what devices will dominate his campus in the years ahead -- perhaps tablet computers, netbooks or some unknown device incubating in a lab somewhere. But there is one thing he does know about the future: It's time to get rid of the desktop PCs.

"This idea that I have to go to a PC and sit down and use it is as quaint as having to go to a phone to use a phone," said McCartney, referring to phones tethered to a wire.

Purdue faces the same problem confronting just about every other university in the U.S. -- declining financial support. And a major cost at the school is the support needed for upwards of 20,000 PCs.

The university, in a report this week, outlined a goal to cut its recurring IT costs by some $15 million over the next three years. Purdue now spends $100 million a year on IT.

With savings in mind, the school's central IT department already has heavily virtualized its servers. Now, it plans to move to a virtualized desktop infrastructure, replacing the desktop PCs used to support business operations and computer labs with centrally managed systems that deliver applications from servers.

"We have to fundamentally change the way we are doing business in IT," said McCartney.

Virtual desktop infrastructure is gaining traction with users, but the major sticking point in any deployment is usually the upfront cost of migrating off PCs to thin clients, said Charles King, an analyst at Pund-IT Inc. in Hayward, Calif.

Users that move to server-based application delivery typically aren't looking to "to drop cost in the next few quarters," said King. "They really are looking for not just short-term savings and create a sustainable lower cost."

The university also wants to consolidate and virtualize its data centers. It now has some 65 data centers, which it defines as any place that has extra power and cooling to support IT equipment, and wants to cut that number in half. Doing so should lead to substantial hardware and power savings.

That work is just starting, and initial pilots on a data center consolidation are due to begin shortly.

The school also hopes to achieve savings with reorganization. As with many research universities, Purdue's IT operation is not fully centralized. The university has about 1,000 IT employees, with about half that number working in a central IT organization. The rest are dispersed among some 35 other IT operations that serve specific department and research needs.

The goal is to centralize some aspects of IT decision-making without imparing the university's strategic needs. "The Borg is not going to win here," said McCartney, referring to the Borg in Star Trek who force assimilation on those they conquered.

Today, for instance, an academic department might negotiate a software licensing agreement with the same vendor that the central IT department is negotiating with. But each IT organization could arrive at different terms. Similarly, hardware purchasing is all over the lot.

"How many types of toner cartridge do we need to be a world-class institution?" asked McCartney.

Patrick Thibodeau covers SaaS and enterprise applications, outsourcing, government IT policies, data centers and IT workforce issues for Computerworld. Follow Patrick on Twitter at @DCgov or subscribe to Patrick's RSS feed . His e-mail address is pthibodeau@computerworld.com.

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