Kingston University near London has announced ambitious plans to "prepare for life without the desktop," virtualising its entire base of PCs, the first major project on this scale in the UK education sector.

The university currently supports 7,000 PCs for staff and student use across four campuses and additional satellite offioces, mostly Windows XP systems with around 1,000 staff laptops and 1,000 that dual boot Apple's OS X.

This will gradually be replaced with an eclectic mixture of fully-thin clients for staff, app virtualisation for students across a range of platforms including mobile devices, and the integration of older PCs able to run Windows 7 as part-virtualised 'hybrids'.

HP will be used to build the server and storage layer with a mixed environment of VDI and Terminal Services offered through Microsoft's Hyper V with the RDP and Workspace manager from Dutch outfit, RES Software.

The project will also upgrade the graphics capability of 3,000 of the PCs using Microsoft's graphics-shifting system for virtualised environments, RemoteFX, the largest installation of this technology so far anywhere in the UK.

The project is inherently complex and is bound to become a closely-watched template for institutions keen to follow in its pioneering footsteps.

"One of the goals is to embrace the consumerisation of IT," said project architect, Daniel Bolton. "We can't force the students to sit down in front of an ugly PC anymore."

The project started four years ago when the University realised it was going to have to replace its aging mish-mash of legacy systems based around conventional PCs and obsolete technology such as Novell's Netware.

Student were having to queue for PC access and then wait minutes to access their desktop and applications.

It had become, in Bolton's words, "A static, bloated, over-managed environment," that couldn't cope with a demanding user base increasingly accessing educational applications from "anywhere, anytime," on new devices such and tablets and smartphones that didn't belong to the University itself.

The logical solution was to impose a layer of virtualisation across applications in order to allow them to be accessed efficiently, gradually migrating internal staff to thin clients after "sweating the assets" [PCs] over a period of years.

Both Bolton and the vice chancellor Julius Weinberg agreed that in future IT would need to be defined around the student "customers". "The IT landscape has changed in the University. Now we're a service-on-demand," said Bolton.

Students would no longer need to queue for access to a PC, or wait minutes for access to their desktop environment. In a virtualised world, access to apps would be available in seconds from any device.

Kingston hopes to have project up and running by the first quarter of 2012, which will include installing virtualisation across all PCs plus the physical infrastructure to support the system, Bolton said.