Hartlepool College IT team wins hearts and minds by ditching Oracle VDI for VMware

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Image: Wikipedia/jamesgibbon

When Hartlepool College switched out its dated Oracle virtual desktop infrastructure for VMware Horizon, the IT team went from being “the most disliked unit in the college, to being one of the most loved”.

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Suffering cuts to its budget after moving into a new building, Hartlepool College plumped for virtualised desktop infrastructure (VDI) that was “underpowered” and “the system itself was quite unreliable,” according to Ged Nicholson, IT manager at the college.

Hartlepool College is a further education institution in Durham, England with over 1,500 full-time students, 7,000 in part-time education, and 450 staff. But the VDI system it had in place was letting everyone down and, in the words of Nicholson, pushing IT staff to “breaking point”.

“We massively struggled for the first three years building with that system – it was a nightmare,” Nicholson says. “The helpdesk constantly had problems, we had days at a time when the whole system was down. It wasn’t good for the staff, and it wasn’t good for the students. We started getting to a breaking point. The manufacturer decided to pull out of virtual desktops, full-stop. It was at that point we went to the principal and said: we need to replace this.”

Luckily for the college, a VAT refund came through and with that, some unexpected budget back from the government. The college decided to tear out the old system and put together a complete refresh with new VDI.

Nicholson says the college had previously virtualised the college’s server infrastructure with VMware and so wanted to go ahead with VMware Horizon VDI, running on Dell Wyse hardware. “From our point of view we finally got the system that we knew would work,” Nicholson says. “It was from day one, a complete change-around. We went from the helpdesk system taking constant calls to just kind of looking at the phone.”

“The amount of helpdesk calls just massively dropped off – we went from being probably the most disliked unit in the college to being one of the most loved units in the college. We interacted much better with the rest of the building – before we would get dirty looks, now we get people smiling at us.”

According to Nicholson, login and application loading times were cut from as high as 20 minutes to under a minute. And outages are no longer a problem at all. The fact that students and staff can work at all is a pretty convenient barometer for the department to measure its success.

And the college estimates significant cost savings - £18,000 a year in power and cooling, and as much as £50,000 a year in maintenance costs due to how unreliable the previous system was.

“The feedback from the staff has been they can actually get along with their work now,” Nicholson explains. “The system’s fast and responsive, which it wasn’t before. Machines weren’t fully booting up before the staff got to their lesson, now they’re in straight away and that makes a big difference to staff and students – if you were coming in for an hour-long class, having a machine take 10, 15 minutes to boot up means you lost that part of the class.”

“And before, if a lecturer came along and said: ‘I need the software for next week’, it would mean booking out a classroom for a couple of hours, half a day, to install the application. Now we do it at the backend and deploy it, so that makes a big difference from an education point of view.”

As well as freeing up staff to actually conduct the work that they need to, Nicholson says his department now has more time to train all the staff on best practices for IT. “On the staff development day, we did a whole course on remote work with Microsoft 365 and VMware Horizon View, to try and get the staff to get the best out of it from home.”

“We hardly have to touch the VDI system, it runs itself,” Nicholson says. “Before, my deputy had done nothing but firefighting with the system. That’s the difference between a bad installation and a good installation.”

“If an IT system is done badly, especially VDI, it will cause you nightmares for a long time. But if you get the right setup, with the right company, helping you with the right equipment on day one, it’s so much easier over the long run.”

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