Advanced 3-D graphics, complex analysis work now possible via virtual desktop

Students use vLabs:Engineering in a computer lab Image by Ed Brennen
Ph.D. student Mike Shone gives some pointers to plastics engineering seniors Kyle Scripter, left, and Dan Cavanaugh as they use the vLabs:Engineering system.

By Ed Brennen

When the Information Technology Office introduced vLabs in 2013, it opened up a whole new level of convenience and accessibility for students. Suddenly, university-owned software running in campus computer labs was available anywhere and anytime, day or night, via a virtual desktop on a student’s laptop, tablet or even their smartphone.

However, one thing vLabs couldn’t deliver at the time was graphics-intensive software such as SolidWorks and Autodesk needed by students in the Francis College of Engineering to do complex, real-time 3-D modeling. That’s because the university servers responsible for vLabs’ processing weren’t equipped with the GPUs (graphics processing units) needed to render advanced imaging.

Thanks to the university’s investment in 12 new servers with two dozen accelerated graphics cards, the IT Office was able to launch vLabs:Engineering in September. The groundbreaking technology allows students to run high-powered graphical applications from anywhere in the world on any device with an internet connection, whether it’s a 10-year-old hand-me-down laptop, a $160 Chromebook or an iPhone.

According to Steve Athanas, IT’s director of platforms and systems engineering, UMass Lowell is the first educational institution, public or private, to deliver virtualized graphics in this way to students.

“There are organizations out there doing this, but they are architectural firms or engineering firms that are doing it for revenue,” says Athanas, who worked with technology companies NVIDIA and VMware to design and acquire the servers with virtualized GPUs, a hardware-software combination that make vLabs:Engineering possible.

“We're the first school to link VMware and NVIDIA with vGPU technology,” says Athanas, who has since fielded requests from several institutions, including Purdue University, Johns Hopkins University, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the University of Auckland, looking to find out how it was done.

After one semester of using the new technology, students and faculty in the Francis College of Engineering give it rave reviews.

Stephen Johnston speaks with a student in the computer lab Image by Ed Brennen
Plastics engineering student Joshua Zubricki discusses his work on vLabs:Engineering with Assoc. Prof. Stephen Johnston.

“It has been a total game-changer,” says Stephen Johnston, an associate professor of plastics engineering who helped IT roll out vLabs:Engineering last fall. “As a faculty member, parents always ask me what kind of computer their son or daughter should have for school. Mac? Windows? Desktop? Laptop? And for years, the answer was real fuzzy. Now they can get whatever they want. As long as it connects to the internet, you’re fine.”

Besides virtualizing 3-D graphics, vLabs:Engineering means students no longer have to camp out for several hours in one of the college’s computer labs while running a complicated simulation. Instead, students can log in to their vLabs workstation on campus, start their analysis, log out and then check on their work hours later — either back in the computer lab or from anywhere else on their personal device.

“It not only allows us to maximize our computer lab facilities, but it changes the way people do work,” Johnston says. “It gives students a lot of flexibility.”

‘It makes it so convenient to work from anywhere.’ -Plastics Engineering student Joshua Zubricki
Each user has 20 gigabytes of dedicated high-performance storage space on the server, as well as a shared drive for collaborative group work.

“It makes it so convenient to work from anywhere,” says plastics engineering student Joshua Zubricki, who completed his undergraduate degree in December and is now pursuing a master’s. “Managing files and revisions in the computer labs was always a huge hassle because everything had to be copied back and forth using flash drives. Now I can easily start work in the computer labs and pick right back up where I left off at home. It’s seamless.”

vLabs:Engineering was originally designed for 100 concurrent users from across the college’s five departments — chemical, mechanical, plastics, civil and environmental, and electrical and computer. But after high demand during the first week of classes last fall, that was doubled to 200.

“It will continue to grow with the demand,” says Johnston, who represents the Plastics Department on the college’s technology committee. “The goal is to make vLabs the standard for the engineering computer labs.”

Students can currently access vLabs:Engineering terminals on campus in Ball Hall 215, Perry Hall 313 and Perry Hall 311, as well as via terminals in Lydon Library, O’Leary Library and the third floor of Southwick Hall. Also, they can just log in from their own device.

Students work in the Autodesk Simulation Lab Image by Ed Brennen
The Autodesk Simulation Lab in Ball Hall has been outfitted with vLabs:Engineering terminals, although students can use the system anywhere on their own devices.

Mike Shone, a Ph.D. student in plastics engineering, helped the IT department stress-test vLabs:Engineering last summer by seeing how much it could handle in terms of file sizes and multiple analyses. He sees the system being especially beneficial for commuters.

“If there’s a snow day and they can’t drive in, but they have a project due, they can still get the work done through vLabs,” says Shone, who, as a teaching assistant, introduced vLabs:Engineering to 48 freshmen in the fall.

Johnston sees similar benefits for graduate students who are working in industry and may not have time to make multiple trips to campus for group projects.

While students could shell out several thousand dollars for a high-end laptop with advanced graphics capabilities, Athanas knows that’s not feasible for most.

“That’s what crystallized my vision for vLabs — to make education more accessible to our students,” says Athanas, who adds that those studying atmospheric science, political science and even criminal justice could soon benefit from the new graphics capabilities through software such as the 3-D mapping program ArcGIS.