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The “virtual” world might conjure up images of avatars, fantasy worlds or “The Matrix.” For Wharton students, it means something completely different.

The Virtual Lab, launched this semester, gives anyone with a Wharton account access to the Wharton lab — similar to accessing one of the computers in Huntsman Hall — from any network connection. This means that students can have free access to programs provided by the lab needed for their classes without downloading these programs onto their computer.

“Oftentimes student feedback is that we need more computers, we need more printers. We need to spend less time waiting in line,” IT Project Leader of Public Computing Jim Denk said. “Virtual desktops give us flexibility that we didn’t have before, and it gives us the opportunity to expand the resources we give to students when we can’t expand our space.”

The initiative went through two pilot stages, one in spring 2012 and a second one in fall 2013, before being released to Wharton MBA and undergraduate students this semester. According to Denk, the first pilot saw a need to increase the “speed of the service.”

The decision to open the Virtual Lab up to students occurred after the second pilot round found more success than the first round.

Since its launch, the Virtual Lab has had 485 different users and 3,720 logins. Though there is a capacity of up to 60 users at a time, there has only ever been a maximum of 22 users on the Virtual Lab at the same time.

The cost of the program is comparable to the cost of having an equal number of physical machines.

“It’s certainly not cheaper,” Denk said. “It is comparable. That presents options that weren’t there before physically.”

Some Wharton professors are ready to embrace the new technology.

“It sounds as if it’s the wave of the future,” Professor Emeritus of Statistics Paul Shaman said. “Ultimately it will mean a lot more convenience for everybody. Why should you go to an actual lab if you can go to a virtual one?”

Shaman is concerned, however, with the issue of licensing the software, which Denk noted is “a very complex thing for virtualization.”

“It does mean that fewer students are buying the software. I think it may mean that the [companies] may increase their prices,” Shaman said.

Every day, the Virtual Lab sees more and more users, according to Denk.

Wharton freshman Nitin Gupta uses the Virtual Lab to get his statistics homework done.

“It’s kind of slow at the beginning when you’re logging on, but other than that it’s pretty good,” Gupta said. “Not enough people know about it though.”

The next step for the initiative is to wait until the end of the semester and then evaluate its performance.

There’s a “magical curve” to evaluating student technology, said Denk. Peak usage occurs in the beginning of the year, during midterms and a larger spike during finals.

“Making sure it works through finals — that’s the next step.”

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