Ferris State University (FSU) is an accredited state university located in Big Rapids, Michigan, offering multiple computing degree plans within its Business/Technology Consortium. The college serves more than 14,000 on- and off-campus students in the region.
I had the opportunity to sit down with Ferris State Professor Amy Buse to learn more about how the school has provided its students with cutting-edge cloud computing technology across a number of applications to better prepare them for their careers after graduation.
Jason: How did you discover Skytap, since it is not commonly used in education?
Amy: I found out about Skytap at Interop a couple years ago. I heard a speaker from the company and knew “I gotta go talk to this guy.” We had researched a lot of other vendors but nobody else had the ability to allow our students install the operating system themselves on bare metal, and not build the cost of the operating system into the charge of each system. As an educational institution, we have flat fee access to unlimited licenses of Windows and other software packages, so we don’t need to have OS licensing fees rolled into each image.
I was teaching a Linux class off-campus, and we would need to remote desktop into the workstations and VMs back in the classroom of the main campus. It was a huge hassle if something happened to the computers back in the lab, or there was a connection problem. So I went to my administration and said if we are going to continue doing off-campus learning, we need a better way.
Jason: What programs are using Cloud labs?
Amy: We teach three programs off campus using Skytap:
- CIS (computer information systems) students who grow up to be programmers and systems analysts on the software side.
- CIT (computer information technology) students who grow up to be server and network administrators and;
- ISI (information security & intelligence) students who learn to harden servers, but they are more on the forensic side – proving what happened after a problem
In ISI they will set up a lab and have students with labs spin them up and try to attack each other. Our first question to Skytap as a vendor was “can we hurt you?” But some particular thing we did in our first semester caused Skytap to take a new look at one of their access policies!
There’s also an HVAC (Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning) off-campus program, and when they found out what we were doing with labs they let students connect their Skytap environment to simulate their interface with Johnson Controls equipment that operates heating and air conditioning systems on site.
Jason: Is usage of Skytap growing in the organization?
Amy: There’s certainly potential for more usage of Skytap in other labs, but we need to consider who funds our capacity – I only have funding secured for business technology programs, so I am not advertising it broadly to other departments. But we talk quite a lot about it among our faculty. The professors that use Skytap a lot are very, very happy with it.
Some people say “you could just set up your own VMs in a data center” but it is the user experience of Skytap on top of the hypervisor that makes it phenomenal. It is easy to take one lab machine, configure it the way we want it, with all the software on it, and then automatically stamp one out per student with a discrete URL. Before that, there was no way to do that.
We have to support ourselves – as technology faculty we are responsible for our systems. So we were maintaining our own lab machines at the main campus, and we had to tell students when and when not to remote in because of other student needs, so there were no conflicts.
Now our students don’t have to fit work time into the 5-7pm lab slot after the class. They don’t even worry about limited access to a remote desktop. They have availability to study or do their homework at any time.
Jason: What was the existing lab environment like?
Amy: On campus, we’d have some desktop computers in a lab running VMware, where students could create their virtual machines. In our off-campus class we have some Mac laptops, so teachers would start the class, students would get the shared laptops out of the closet and work on them, and then they’d need to put them right back in the closet at the end of the lesson. This meant students had no ability to actually use the tools and do hands-on homework.
A few students had their own laptops they could set up with the system, but then that would become a huge burden on faculty to support those configurations. The faculty could sometimes spend 10 weeks out of a 15-week semester before they were done troubleshooting the students’ systems.
We would rather have the training VMs available to run 24/7, so instead of remoting into computers on campus, the student could look at them any time and turn them on to do their homework.
So we were looking at the prospect of having to build our own remote training labs, with servers, VMs and software configurations updated and backed up. We’d be on our own in that process with little help from IT. The workload would have been unsupportable for our faculty, we’d all have to teach fewer classes to handle it. Plus procurement of everything could take a semester or more.
Jason: What would it take to do this yourself?
Amy: If we took the “build our own” route, we were estimating an additional equipment cost of at least $120,000 per year, just for the hardware. Add to that all the configuration and maintenance labor. We could communicate to the school that the conventional approach would still fall a great deal short of what we needed.
We are trying to put additional value numbers together, but there are approximately 550 business technology students per semester leveraging Skytap. The per-student cost of dev/test labs is sustainable at our current costs.
Jason: What are some of the use case scenarios?
Amy: Capture the Flag is an educational game we run, where each student has to create an entire infrastructure of VMs in Skytap, and use it to attack two other students’ labs.
In another IT management class, students had to learn how to build a system from the ground up, and then work with lab partner teams, where one would be in charge of configurations, and the lab partner would act as the sysadmin and make sure the work gets backed up.
Jason: What were the administrative difficulties of getting this off the ground?
Amy: I initially brought the solution to FSU to address the limitations we were encountering in the technology labs, and made the business case for funding.
Fortunately we had a VP of operations (Don Green, VP of Extended and International Operations) who wanted us to get into cloud services a few years ago, and wanted us to find a way to teach in the cloud. He has understood that we needed this approach and supported the funding of the project. We would have had a much more difficult time getting this new approach approved without a champion.
Because we were moving to cloud, we had a lot of questions about our students’ privacy. Just like the healthcare industry has HIPAA, we have FERPA (Federal Education Right to Privacy Act) that dictates how personal data about our students can be managed. For instance, the data that a particular student takes a particular class, and their email address are protected by FERPA.
So we are asked “What student data are you putting out there?” and we can honestly say “None.” The student never has a personal login, they are just getting to their virtual machines via a published URL. That made it easy to go forward.
Jason: Can students still cheat on their exams now?
Amy: Most students don’t have a login, they just use Skytap’s Published URL feature to get to their machines. In a couple of classes we did give students a login to the Skytap Cloud management dashboard, so they could build their configurations from the ground up. But we toggled the features in Skytap to keep it fair and prevent them from uploading or copying VMs and environments into their area.
Sometimes it’s hard for students to distinguish between latency in their network connection and the application itself. So inevitably you will hear some complaints about response times, but that is always a product of the quality of their network connection – if they’re using wifi in a crowded coffee shop rather than a solid connection.