Durham University takes a parallel approach to universal applications access

Gary Flood Profile picture for user gflood October 7, 2019
Durham University wanted to provide a truly mobile IT campus experience – independent of users’ device choice – and ensure that experience would be user-centric and follow them anywhere.


Durham Uni

Ask Michael Coxon, Technical Lead (Desktops) at Durham University, one of the UK’s oldest and most prestigious higher education institutions, why he decided to look into a way to enable thousands of students and staff to access to all the applications they need to do their work from anywhere on any device, the answer comes back loud and clear:

We needed to address an out-of-date situation whereby students had to physically go to specific locations on campus, during opening hours, to access the applications needed to do their work on our managed machines. Students need to be able to use their favourite devices and enjoy the flexibility they need to learn from anywhere without being tied to one single campus location.

We also needed to find a way to deliver applications that was consistent, flexible and simple for the end user. The solution also had to be something that was cost-effective, sustainable and secure.”

Durham University has over 17,000 students and 2,000 staff, he adds - so to provide a truly mobile IT campus experience – independent of users’ device choice – that also ensured that experience would be user-centric and follow them anywhere, he needed a pretty robust and scalable solution:

As Technical Lead at Durham University, I am responsible for the managed Windows Desktop solutions. I’ve been here for 21 years, and have implemented desktop solutions from NT4 to the present Windows 10 solutions with almost every variant in-between. But with our new Windows 10 solution, we decided to break the mould and implement a way to make applications user-centric and device agnostic, and offer a consistent, flexible and simple way to access applications.

That new way of working, it had been decided, had to be one that would allow Durham students and staff to be able to let them do their work, from wherever they choose, on their preferred device - be that a PC, Windows Surface, Mac, Android to iOS Tablets and phones using native touch gestures, Chromebook, Linux, Xbox One, PS4; in theory, he states, any device with an HTML5 browser.

Originally, the University was looking at a Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) approach - but this became less favoured after research indicated, in the words of one of Coxon’s colleagues, Jim Macura, a Project Manager in the Durham central IT team, that such a solution might well be a lot less flexible than was wanted:

VDI seemed like an obvious way to go, but looking at that in detail meant that there was a huge support overhead for us, quite a lot in terms of gaining knowledge and skills and quite a significant cost as well. [This other approach] just hit the nail on the head in terms of what we wanted to do.

Parallel thinking

The new solution eventually chosen was developed by two partners - Parallels, a specialist in cross-platform solutions and Higher Education software delivery experts Software2. The result is a combination of software that supports both a new desktop environment at the University Cloudpaging, deployed at Durham by Software2 and which is a way to lets users package and virtualize any Windows software, and a package that from Parallels that in tandem means students and staff can work wherever they choose on their preferred device.

Parallels Remote Application Server is the final piece of the application delivery puzzle, Coxon adds, allowing the IT team to use existing AppsAnywhere/Cloudpaging deliveries to get any app to any device, a move he describes as “game changing”.

We selected these suppliers because of their focus on Higher Education and the team’s understanding of the IT challenges we face in our market. They have also worked with us to co-develop the overall solution to meet our exact use cases, and understand the importance of how technology can be used to improve the student experience and increase student retention rates.

He adds that the project is part of a suite of new services being rolled out across the University  to enhance IT infrastructure and process improvement - something called the “New World Project”. Started in 2013, New World included extensive work on giving members of the University community easier access to applications, on whatever device seemed most appropriate to them:

The project was implemented with no real effort and adapted to very quickly by the end-users. In fact, our users just take it for granted and don’t really appreciate the technology behind the system – it’s just a simple webpage that they launch apps from, and to them, it just works. I have to say the most surprising thing for us has been how easily it has been adopted and taken for granted.

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