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Pilot provides at-home cluster access

Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Staff Credit: Adelaide Cole/Art Staff

Pulling an all-nighter in the cluster may soon be a thing of the past, thanks to a new initiative by Carnegie Mellon Computing Services. While Computing Services cannot necessarily alleviate students’ need to work until early hours in the morning, it is taking steps to decrease students’ reliance on cluster computing. Since Sept. 22, campus affiliates have had access to Virtual Andrew, a new pilot program. Virtual Andrew uses technology called VDI, which stands for virtual desktop infrastructure, to allow students to access cluster software from their own computers. The program provides students with remote access to various types of academic software, without forcing them to install the often-expensive software packages on their personal computers.

The Virtual Andrew pilot currently offers a selection of popular software including Adobe Photoshop, Adobe Acrobat Pro, MATLAB, and Microsoft Office 2010. Virtual Andrew provides remote access to a “virtual” Windows cluster machine using a technology called VMware View. Students can download the VMware View client for their personal machines to access Virtual Andrew. Manager of Cluster Services Connie Deighan Eaton compared the service to a library, as “students will be essentially checking out a Windows cluster machine, a machine that lives in a server room, not a physical cluster.... It will apply the settings you have set up on your personal account in a Windows cluster, such as your MyFiles space, Andrew printing, Andrew File System , and even your browser preferences.”

Alekhya Gampa, a sophomore electrical and computer engineering major, regularly uses the clusters on campus to access advanced programming text editors and compilers, as well as design software such as Adobe Photoshop and Illustrator. “This is totally going to change how much I rely on the clusters. I won’t have to walk to one, and then be disappointed to find that it’s full and there are no machines available,” Gampa said.

According to Eaton, the Virtual Andrew pilot is one of Computing Services’ latest attempts at meeting students’ needs. “As students progress through their program at Carnegie Mellon, their software needs become more and more intensive while their personal machines become older and older.... Seniors who may need the most advanced software may have computers that are at least three years old,” Eaton said.

In creating the Virtual Andrew pilot, Computing Services has conferred with faculty from disciplines across campus to get a feel for professors’ concerns. A clear problem is the variability of versions of software on students’ machines.

“Consistency is important. [Virtual Andrew] will ensure that everyone within a class will have access to the same software. In the past, students working in a group on a project could have been using different versions of software on their machines, and their files might not have been compatible,” Eaton said.
“Now there will be consistency between what students can access on their own machines and what professors are instructing from in the clusters.”

Ramyata Upmaka, a sophomore materials science and engineering major, needs to use MATLAB software for her courses. She found out about the Virtual Andrew pilot from a friend while logging onto a cluster computer in Morewood Gardens. Immediately after seeing a demo of VMware, Upmaka left the cluster to go open the pilot softwafe on her laptop. “It’s nice because I don’t have to install software onto my own computer. I will definitely tell my friends about this,” said Upmaka.

According to its website, Computing Services encourages students to download the Virtual Andrew pilot on their personal machines. All campus affiliates with an Andrew username may go through the installation steps on www.cmu.edu/computing/virtual-andrew. Because it is a pilot program, users are reminded that, according to Cluster Services, “the service may not be completely stable. Save work often in a secure location, and plan to visit a computer cluster if needed.”
Questions regarding the Virtual Andrew pilot may be directed to clusters@andrew.cmu.edu.