A Non-Traditional Way to Educate Non-Traditional Students in a Tumultuous Time


During the pandemic, those of us working in education have had to balance the needs of students with the realities of the densely populated classroom environment. Classrooms around the world have found their own solutions to continue instruction as best they could, and in almost all cases, institutions discovered their answers in technology.

As the pandemic trucked on month after month, many IT departments found that they needed to change their IT infrastructure to meet the long-term needs of their professors and students. We were one of those IT departments. 

Unique Needs and Aging Facilities

Located in Hudson County, New Jersey, Hudson County Community College (HCCC) serves about 18,000 degree-seeking undergraduate, continuing education, and workforce development students. We offer degrees or certifications in a variety of fields, including nursing, art, criminal justice, electrical engineering, and sociology. The college is especially known for its culinary program, as one of only two schools in the area accredited by the American Culinary Federation Accrediting Commission.

We have other distinguishing factors, too. Rather than spanning a broad swath of open ground, HCCC is a vertical campus. We occupy 10 city buildings spread out over two blocks in Journal Square, a building in Union City, and the  Secaucus Center on the Frank J. Gargiulo Campus of the Hudson County Schools of Technology (HCST). Other factors involve the distinct needs of our student body. Many of our students do not attend classes full time, nor do they have access to personal laptops or other high-quality computing devices. Some of our students will be the first of their families to graduate from college, while others are new to the U.S. and speak English as a second language. Other students are balancing work with raising families. They need easy and flexible access to facilities to keep up with their work.

Students coming from various backgrounds and situations need easy and flexible access to educational facilities to keep up with their work. #NutanixStories

When I began my tenure at HCCC three years ago, the school had already been through several unsuccessful attempts to fully refresh its computers. Since many students don’t have their own devices, the campus lab and library computers are used more often than on other campuses. For a variety of reasons, some of our technical infrastructure had been neglected over time, so even though students and teachers used these computers frequently, the facilities were slow and frustrating to use.

My goal was to get us as close as possible to a five-year replacement cycle. While we were going through that process, we had an additional request from the Executive Vice President and Provost of HCCC to refresh all of the computers in the library—90 machines altogether.

As we began planning for the upgrade, we came face to face with our budget limitations. Purchasing and installing physical computers would be very expensive and require the personal attention of IT staff. Eventually, we realized that our best choice would be to move to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) instead.

A Cost-Effective Technology Upgrade

We worked with our technology partner, Aspire, to examine multiple options. The most obvious choice was VMware, in part because we were already familiar with it. However, Aspire suggested that we try Nutanix. Nutanix AHV offers a secure, enterprise-grade virtualization solution, and when we saw it in action, we were impressed with the entire package. Comparing it to VMware, we also discovered that Nutanix was 35% less expensive. 

HCCC signed an agreement with Nutanix in spring 2019, with a plan to complete the rollout in the fall. We had a lot of moving parts to manage, and much of our effort over the summer of 2019 was devoted to getting the stakeholders up and running. Academic Lab Manager Diana Perez and her team were very helpful in this regard. With their cooperation, we got the library staff familiar with the new VDI and integrated some third-party software.

During the first few months of 2020, we used 150 licenses in our pilot program. Everything went smoothly; as spring arrived, one of our biggest concerns was getting people to log out of their session before walking away from the computer in our public facilities. Then everything changed.

The Impact of Nutanix on Our COVID-19 Response

The pandemic dramatically altered our plans. As the virus raged across Hudson County, we suddenly had a couple of new problems. 

Given our limited space, there was no configuration that would allow us to continue operating while complying with COVID-19 restrictions. That meant our solution had to become primarily remote for almost all parties involved. Our technology infrastructure was designed for in-person facilities, but suddenly everyone was trying to access the campus remotely. 

Because so many of our students did not own their own laptops, we came up with a plan to secure more devices and loan them to our students. However, because of supply chain issues, we were only able to locate Chromebooks—which have limitations. They can be great for browsing the internet, but there are a number of other functions and resources that they can't handle. In addition, we were a Microsoft Office 365 campus, and most of our platform was incompatible with Google. 

Adjusting to remote operations can be a nightmare if an organization isn’t set up for VDI. #NutanixStories

At the end of the day, adjusting to remote operations would have been a nightmare had we not been set up for VDI. With that technology in place, we confidently purchased and distributed more than 1,000 Chromebooks, knowing they could be adapted to serve our students.

Our System Administrator, Kevin Eng, ensured a consistent experience for users by setting up non-persistent desktops so a student could access the most updated versions of all the correct apps and no one would have to worry about users making any changes. Kevin also created persistent desktops for specific use cases, including users who needed to manage their local desktops and track their files. This flexibility was especially important as we were using AHV combined with Citrix in addition to VDI.

Over time, we expanded the number of VPN licenses to around 250. We also purchased Cisco Webex licenses for everyone on campus. Throughout all these changes, we loved the fact that the VDI was always our failsafe. Whenever anyone had trouble with something new to them, it was a simple process for Kevin to step in and help. The ease of troubleshooting was invaluable for our users.

The other thing we love about Nutanix is the ability to right-size our environment. Previously, it would have been a huge deal to upgrade our storage or the number of desktops being used. However, the process of expanding our Nutanix architecture is now a simple one-day endeavor. Since we began using Nutanix, we've added five new nodes into the existing environment. 

The Continuous Need for VDI

Nutanix helped us continue to educate our students through a time of dramatic upheaval. But even though we are out of lockdown and our students are allowed to return to campus, there is still a need for VDI. Many of our students work inconsistent hours, and others find they are time-limited by child care needs, commuting, or other factors. The power of VDI is that they can access their education regardless of where they are or the device being used. They don’t have to be restricted to the hours of our lab facilities, and that provides them with more flexibility in the learning environment.

With VDI, IT departments can reduce the time spent dealing with machines and increase the time spent with people. #NutanixStories

We have no intention of returning to our previous physical architecture. Rather than replacing our old PCs, our plan is to continue using VDI upgrades. That will help us reduce costs from both equipment purchases and the maintenance of classroom and lab machines. 

As of right now, we have about 2,500 Windows endpoints and an IT team of 12 people, so time is always of the essence. As people continue to return to campus, we expect an increase in support calls, which will require in-person attention. We need every advantage available to reduce the time spent dealing with machines so that we can increase the time we spend with our people.

Reflecting on Success and Considering Our Future

We are proud of the work we accomplished using Nutanix. The platform made the administration of remote sessions a lot easier. We survived a tremendous shift in our operations with minimal support concerns. Even now, the affordability and cost-effectiveness of the solution mean that Nutanix is sustainable for the long term.

During the lockdown, the education process was dependent on all parties having the appropriate hardware and infrastructure at home. In many situations, the learning experience was interrupted and inconsistent. With Nutanix, our faculty, staff, and students always have a safety net.