Q&A

VMware Project NEE developed to deliver educational services at scale

VMware Inc.'s Next-generation Education Environment , or Project NEE, is a cloud-based learning environment the company developed to meet its own training demands when available products didn't meet the company's needs. It's possible the application could make the leap to a full-fledged product.

VMware uses the Project NEE technology to run its Hands-on Labs at VMworld events and for online training of VMware products to assist its employees, partners and customers. The benefits of Project NEE include flexibility -- the ability to integrate social media, live chat, video, audio and notes in a training session -- and scalability.

SearchVMware.com spoke with Curtis Pope, Mike DiPetrillo and Sean Borman of the Project NEE team to hear more about the work behind this learning platform. 

What are some of the features in Project NEE that aren't available in other online learning environments?

Project NEE team: For the end user, delivering a superb learning experience is what NEE is all about. NEE does this by bringing together the 'doing' -- the lab VMs -- and the instructional materials -- notes, video, audio -- in an easy to use, integrated learning environment. NEE supports multiple displays and can even split the learning environment across devices. Students can use their iPad or Android device to see the manual for a lab and switch the consoles while using their primary desktop machine in full screen mode for the display of the lab VM. The two device displays automatically stay in sync.

The making of 
Project NEE

The origins and developing the technical platform
Advanced features streamline the learning process

NEE delivers this learning environment independent of client operating systems (Mac, Windows, Linux) to almost any device. All NEE requires of the end-user system is that it has a modern Web browser. For students, this means they can get straight to learning. For teachers, it means no time wasted fixing IT issues.

NEE supports complex lab environments that are hard, if not impossible, to achieve on other platforms.  NEE lab virtual machines can run any of the hundreds of operating system versions supported by the vSphere platform. Since NEE labs provide a true 'VM console,' students get complete control of their private lab -- even allowing provisioning of new operating systems or adjusting VM BIOS configuration parameters. Using a template-based approach for storing labs in the NEE content catalog makes lab content management and deployment easy.

NEE supported more than 450 concurrent users at VMworld, with each and every one of those users running a complex lab environment. NEE is scaling far beyond that.

Project NEE is fully multi-tenant and supports custom branding and skinning per tenant. Project NEE also provides support for private, public or even hybrid cloud solutions.

Aside from the Hands-On Labs, does VMware use Project NEE anywhere else?

Project NEE team: To date there are more than 20 VMware tenants that use the Project NEE service to provide labs to customers and partners.

For example, VMware's professional services and education teams are using Project NEE to deliver extended labs and self-paced labs to customers. Students who enroll for VMware's instructor-led training can use their labs at home.

The VMware education group recently launched a self-paced version of our most popular instructor-led classes. This is allowing more people to get education to expand their skill sets.

Our technical marketing team is using NEE to deliver all of our VMworld labs and more online. Anyone can go to the HOL [Hands-on Labs] website and sign up to take a lab. There are more than 80 different labs that people can go through today.

What kind of infrastructure was required to deliver the 10,000 lab sessions at VMworld? How did it perform in terms of uptime and latency?

Project NEE team: A lot of design time and testing goes into building the VMworld environment. VMworld was run out of VMware's own internal private cloud as well as VMware's recently launched cloud offering called vCloud Hybrid Service (vCHS). For VMworld U.S., capacity was served out of data centers located in Las Vegas and Wenatchee, Wash. Between the two data centers, we had 160 servers with 3,200 processing cores, 80 TB of memory and 56 TB of storage. Total uptime for VMworld was 99.999%; there was a brief interruption of the back end due to a failed content upload. Because of Project NEE's architecture, this issue had no impact on end users taking labs.

Were the VMworld 2013 labs the biggest test of Project NEE so far?

Project NEE team: VMworld 2013 in the U.S. resulted in the highest single-day production loads for Project NEE outside of our regular scale tests -- which vastly exceed the numbers from VMworld. Even though we delivered more than 10,000 lab sessions in the short duration of the conference, these numbers are a very small fraction of the number of labs we've delivered though our very popular Hands-on Labs program operated by our technical marketing team.

What are the future plans for the Project NEE technology? Is it going to be offered as a service -- NEEaaS -- or as a product?

Project NEE team: While we cannot make any commitments around future plans for Project NEE, we're extremely encouraged by the enthusiasm expressed by customers and partners that want to use Project NEE to deliver their own labs and training content to their customers.

To better understand these customer and partner use cases and requirements, the Project NEE team is engaging in conversation with select customers and partners and is planning to run a limited public beta program. [If your organization is interested in being a beta customer, then you can email nee-info@vmware.com.]

Is anyone using Project NEE technology outside of VMware? For example, are there any education or business entities that have shown an interest in NEE?

Project NEE team: We already have strong interest in Project NEE coming from customers and partners. Most of these customers learned about Project NEE through using it at VMworld or through our Hands-on Labs program. We've received inquiries from organizations ranging from Fortune 500 enterprises, government and secondary and tertiary education institutions.

What's really encouraging to the Project NEE team is that the interest has been unsolicited. To date, the team has focused on building a superb tool for one customer -- VMware itself -- but now that the Project NEE 'secret' is out, it looks like Curtis and Mike's greater vision for Project NEE is a couple of steps closer to reality.


This was first published in November 2013

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