Category Archives: Education

OneDrive, Placeholders, and shared PCs.

OneDrive now with Files On Demand

At their annual Build conference, Microsoft announced that OneDrive was getting a new feature called “Files On Demand”- basically a replacement for the placeholders feature that was present in Windows 8.1’s OneDrive client. The official Office blog goes into more detail about the new features, and there’s a detailed writeup by Paul Thurrott which also includes the history of OneDrive placeholders, but I’d like to discuss the advantages for the education vertical- in particular Student PC labs.

Microsoft kindly offer OneDrive to University students for basically nothing, so it sounds like an ideal replacement for traditional on-premises network file-shares. Rather than the IT department struggling to provide 50 or 100GB of space per student from their budget, they could just point students at the 1 TB of disk Microsoft is providing for free.

Sync Good

A sink. Not a sync

Not this kind of sync


With a single regular user and enough local hard disk space a sync client without placeholders is fine. All the users files are synced to the local disk and available instantly whenever they are required. The selective sync in the current Windows 10 client helps on devices with smaller disks, but is still only really beneficial on a PC with a single regular user.

Sync Bad

On the students personal devices this works great- we’re back at this 1 user:1 device ratio. However in a student PC lab environment there are potentially hundreds of desktops and each of tens of thousands of users could log into any one at any time. We have a x,000:1 user:device ratio. Students don’t want to login to a machine at the start of a class and then wait whilst half a terabyte of data they don’t need syncs before document they need appears. Additionally IT don’t want to have to tidy up all this synced data after every user logs off.

Student Computer Labs

It’s technically possible (although can be a little fiddly depending on your infrastructure) to map your OneDrive to a drive letter using WebDav and then access it as you would a traditional “Home” drive, but this is unsupported by Microsoft. There are third party solutions that will map the drive, basically providing a front end and a support contract around this, but they’re often costly and may require infrastructure changes.

Placeholders FTW

Placeholders (or “Files On Demand”) is the ideal solution here. The student now sits down at the shared lab machine and all their files are listed. They then open the file of their choice and there’s an invisible, seamless, download in the background. When they save the file it’s synced back to the cloud. The user is happy as they no longer has to wait for all their files to sync before they can work and can take advantage of the large capacity (and sharing facilities too). IT are happy because they don’t have to fund (and support, maintain) as much storage.

I know many IT Professionals working in Higher Education will be looking forward to this release in the autumn.


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100,000 good reasons to virtualise those apps

A few years ago the IT department I work for set about revolutionising it’s software delivery methods using application virtualisation. As a University we were faced with the challenge of providing all applications to the staff and students on any PC- fighting the situation where “Package A is only available in the Engineering labs, Package B is only available in the Library” and so on.
The Legacy way of dealing with this was to provide ever-more-massive disk images, but this meant desktop computers were requiring larger and larger hard disks and were faced with longer and longer rebuild times. Added to this was the problem that the wide application portfolio would get out of date quicker and quicker as individual apps couldn’t be updated independently of that master image.
Using systems such as SCCM Software Centre to deploy apps on request to a slimmer Gold image was great in the traditional office setting where each computer has 1 user so can be setup with their apps. But imagine a student turning up to a lesson in a computer lab and having to wait 30 minutes or more whilst the package they need for that lesson is installed. An hour later a different student on a different course sits down at the same PC and needs different software so also has to wait. Doing the full-fat install in this manner doesn’t work when you have hundreds (or potentially thousands) of different users of a single PC.

Application Virtualisation

Along came Application Virtualisation- for us in the form of Numecent’s Application Jukebox product provided via Software2 (other suppliers and products are available). This meant that a Windows desktop could be quickly deployed as the image only contained a core of applications (Antivirus, Office etc). Additional applications could then be streamed directly from the central repository on demand- with all but the biggest packages the user could be up and running within seconds, rather than waiting for a whole application to be downloaded and installed. Applications could be updated individually and automatically deployed without the need for a rebuild operation. Additionally, just like a traditionally installed application, the virtualised apps work offline- once an app has streamed a laptop can be unplugged, taken home, and the user can continue to work.

Building the Portal

However, we did find a limitation. We wanted to take this a step beyond the computer-lab environment, we wanted to offer a portal whereby staff could install software on demand (and without the security risk of giving them admin rights) and even better students could install apps on their personal devices without collecting a CD from the helpdesk. Unfortunately the user-facing web interface which was included with AppJ at the time was very limited- basically just an unsortable, unsearchable, list of applications.
A team of us set about building a custom portal- building a new friendlier user interface and (after a bit of experimentation and reverse engineering) putting together the back end to use the Jukebox platform to deploy the selected apps.
Screenshot from Application PortalMidway through 2013 this new front-end went live and even though it was a soft launch an immediate following developed. Previously students wanting to BYOD had to visit the helpdesk where they could sign for and collect a CD of an application. They then had to manually install this themselves- child’s play for a computing student, but possibly a bit more of a challenge for someone studying a less technological discipline. Now anyone could login to the website from their home PC, click on their app of choice, and start using it seconds later. By the end of the year we had reached ten thousand applications deployed from the portal, and had some cake to celebrate.

Today

Fast forward to 2017 and The Application Jukebox platform is now developed into CloudPaging and thankfully customers no longer have to build their own front-end thanks to Software2’s S2Hub product .
Our custom portal is still running and we’ve passed a hundred-thousand applications installed from the site. That’s potentially 100,000 CDRs saved and presumably quite a few external-CD drives to install them on modern laptops. To put that into context that many CDs is about the same weight as a Stegosaurus!

Stegosaurus

The Stegosaurus. A legacy measurement of weight.

The portal has developed over time and now also includes links to Mac and Linux installers, and VDI connections to run Windows apps on other platforms – I’ve discussed integrating RemoteApp into a portal on this blog back in 2014 and we’ve even linked managed SCCM deployments into the same front end.

Conclusion

In our environment, with a massive app portfolio supporting subjects from Astrophysics to Zoology and an historically sizable appetite for BYOD, application virtualisation has been incredibly useful in answering the needs of a diverse user base both on the corporate managed platform and also the constantly changing variety of personal devices.
As a supplier of services our customers are now better served, and from an internal management perspective we have not only a much better understanding of the applications in use out there, but we have better, finer control over licenses.
If you are stuck deploying workstations with a legacy Gold Image which is getting unwieldy, I’d recommend having a look at Application Virtualisation.

Learning with Minecraft

There’s been a lot of coverage in the press about teaching with Minecraft- Microsoft even releasing an Educational version. So when the kids were set a homework project about “Super Structures” this got me thinking- let’s give Minecraft a go to supplement the project work set by the teacher. The project brief was to produce an informational poster or model on a structure of their choice, in our case The Eiffel Tower and Big Ben (or at least the tower which contains the bell by that name to be pedantic). Suitable amounts of craft paper, lolly sticks, straws, matchsticks and PVA were obtained and they set about construction, but once that was done and the glue was drying they turned to the Xbox One.

image

I’d prepared for this and we sat down and spent some time building Minecraft impressions of our Super Structures. This led to discussions about the materials to use (or at least the colour and texture), how big to make the model, and the shapes of the buildings. For example we before building tall towers we noted that in this case they both have a square base, the Eiffel Tower is made of iron and looks dark grey/black, we need to make the base wide enough in each that we have space to slope in to a point at the top but not so wide that we spend all day piling blocks up to make them tall enough, and so on.

It also led to discussions about the differences between Minecraft and real life. Gravity and other forces aren’t as much of a factor in the Minecraft world, and Augustus Pugin and Charles Barry didn’t have to design their structures to withstand marauding Creepers.

A new superflat world had been set up in advance, using Creative Mode (so players have access to unlimited resources without spending hours digging underground) and with the difficulty set to Peaceful (so that players are not distracted by Zombies crossing Westminster Bridge). To give us a bit of setting a short length of both the Thames and the Seine were included along with some trees from Champ des Mars, although with more time I might have practised some better topiary.

Minecraft Screenshot

Big Ben, The Eiffel Tower, and some trees.

Once finished, flying around the landscape allowed some screenshots of their creations to be taken which could then be printed, cropped, and glued (real old-skool Cut-and-Paste) onto the posters.

I’m not a qualified teacher, and have no idea if this will directly get them “better marks” on their homework, but it definitely sparked some conversation about the design of the structures, their location and history, and the materials used, which is really the point of the exercise. For an hour or so we managed to play in Minecraft whilst getting a bit of extra education relevant to their schoolwork- remember Kids, Learning is Fun!