Installing a Virtual Lab Regional Hub

An Interview with Jim Cosentino, Folsom Lake College

As the demand for trained IT professionals grows, community colleges must find a way to offer training to an increasing number of students wanting to work in this field. A virtual lab system can help make this possible.

We interviewed Jim Cosentino, Administrator for the North/Far North Region’s shared NETLAB+ hub to find out what it took to install the system containing more than 1,400 virtual computers, and how colleges can prepare for their own installations.

WHY VIRTUAL LABS?

The ability to offer a multitude of classes without investing in expensive lab equipment is a major benefit of using a virtual lab system.

“NETLAB+ gives colleges the ability to do remote labs with equipment they don’t typically have,” said Cosentino. “The lab setups are made up of one to eight virtual computers called a pod. This is not something easy to do in a physical lab on campus.”

Network Development Group (NDG) has created an easy process for administrators to get images and templates for putting specific pods together. When Cosentino receives a request for a lab, he obtains pre-configured images from the National Center for Systems Security and Information Assurance (CSSIA), then downloads instructions for building the pod from the NDG website.

These resources have enabled participating colleges in the region to offer a variety of courses including Network Systems Administration, Ethical Hacking, Computer Forensics Fundamentals, and classes that prepare students to take the CompTIA A+, Network+ and Security+ certification exams.

THE INSTALLATION

Budget

Funds for the region’s installation at Folsom Lake College were secured through two grants. Folsom Lake College initially obtained a $50,000 grant to start the NETLAB+ system, then campus Deans worked together with Steve Linthicum, the region’s ICT-Digital Media Deputy Sector Navigator to secure a larger grant. The total budget for the project was approximately $600,000 for equipment, staff development for instructors, and personnel.

Cosentino worked closely with his campus IT department to spec out and build the infrastructure.

“We had to rely on what we knew about throughput and latency. We had to look at what they had as individual physical servers with local hard drives, and had a lot of conversations about what performance they were seeing versus a SAN.”

The team was able to resolve initial concerns about performance issues, and installation began in December, 2015 during winter intersession.

The region’s hub currently consists of the following:

  • Cisco 3650 Series Switch

  • 2 Cisco 9372 Fiber Switches

  • 3 NETLAB+ appliances which serve up to 160 simultaneous virtual computers each

  • 8 student hosts (VMware EXS hosts)

  • Nimble CS500 Storage Area Network (SAN)

  • 1 management host

After the equipment was installed, Cosentino worked to build the labs in January, 2016 and the system went online just in time for spring semester.

Cosentino plans to add two more NETLAB+ appliances which will serve an additional 320 simultaneous virtual computers and two more hosts with the remaining grant funds.

DEMAND IS GROWING

To make it easy for instructors to use the system, Cosentino created the NFNRC NETLAB System website. Instructors can learn how to get started with NETLAB+ and access links to lab equipment and curriculum for classes currently installed on the NETLAB+ system.

There is also a process in place for requesting custom virtual computers and pods to be installed.

“We have several instructors who go out and build in VMware Player. Then they ship the template to us, tell us what the pod layout is, and we customize the map the students get when they spin up this pod,” explained Cosentino.

Senior IT Technician, Kim Small, assists Cosentino in building the pods/VMs.

In just eight months, nearly 15 instructors in the region have taught classes using NETLAB+ and the demand for courses is growing. Cosentino said he recently received approval to install content for one of NDG’s latest offerings, Palo Alto Networks Academy, and will now start building out the labs.

“Several instructors want to start teaching the Palo Alto firewall content,” he said.

DON’T FORGET LICENSING

Cosentino noted there are some hoops to jump through when building a virtual lab infrastructure from scratch.

“You have to become a member of the VMware IT Academy, which costs money, and then you get licenses,” he said. “Even the VMware infrastructure has to be licensed.”

Colleges must also join the Cisco Academy and EMC Academic Alliance in order to access content.

FUTURE HOPES FOR VIRTUAL LABS

Cosentino sees a bright future for virtual lab systems like NETLAB+.

“I have a daughter who is a freshman in high school and I see the potential for working at the high school level, too. We are working with some of our CIS instructors to create an environment for applications,” he said.

Right now, NETLAB+ operates as a self-contained system, meaning that the pod itself can’t connect to the Internet. But Cosentino hopes that in the future, the system will enable students to create and save their work.

“Once we figure out how students can save their work to Canvas or Google Drive, or somewhere, we’ll be able to assist them quite a bit with software classes,” he said. “If we can do that, it’ll explode exponentially.”