Virtual Desktops

Virtual Desktop Tutorial

by Peter J. Cobb, University of Pennsylvania
version: November 2017

This tutorial is the companion for a short article in the SAA Archaeological Record explaining how Virtual Desktops (VD) can be useful for collaborative data management on archaeological projects.  It is now possible for teams to quickly create a free trial VD server at one of several online vendors.  Although these servers tend to have limited processing power and storage, they can be used for free for a year.  This would give an archaeological team significant time to experiment with how well VDs might function for hosting project data workflows, including data collection, processing, and analysis.  Tasks such as running relational database software, sharing images and other files, as well as limited GIS mapping and 3d modeling, are all possible.  Multiple people can be logged in to the server, however only two can actively use it at the exact same time.

This tutorial introduces the product offered by Amazon Web Services (AWS), called the free tier.  This is, however, only one of a number of expanding options for trying VDs for free.   Microsoft Azure offers a similar free account, and Google Cloud also has a similar free tier, and both of these provide extra up-front credits. 

All of these services are part of a general trend towards 'cloud computing,' where users rent processing power on the internet.  This saves time when compared to purchasing, setting up, and maintaining the hardware yourself.  Over just the last few years it has become possible to rent any configuration you want, from remote hardware onto which you install an operating system, to servers already running all the software you require.  The industry has even developed terms for this range of services, with each level designated 'as a Service,' abbreviated aaS.  For example, a VD server provides a platform for you to do your normal computer work, and is thus considered a Platform as a Service (PaaS).

We proceed through the following steps to get a VD server running on AWS.  Each step links to a subpage of this tutorial with further details:

  1. Establish an AWS Account.  Before you can setup and use a VD server, you must have an account with AWS.  You will need to enter a credit card, though it should never be used, and you can monitor this with a billing alarm.
  2. Launch an Instance. On AWS, a server is called an instance, and you will setup an instance of the type EC2 (Elastic Compute Cloud) t2.micro.  This instance will run the Windows Server operating system.
  3. Enable Connections to the Instance.  In order for you or any other user to connect to your instance, you must configure your instance's network security to allow inbound connections.
  4. Connect to the Instance with Remote Desktop.  By remotely logging in to your instance, you can view your VD and access the server's configuration settings.
  5. Add Additional User Accounts.  Once you login as the administrator of your instance, you will be able to use normal Microsoft Windows workflows to allow other team members to connect and get individual VDs.
  6. At this point, everything on your instance should be configured, so you can provide instructions for your team members to login to the instance to get a VD.  In essence, they would follow similar instructions to what is seen in steps 4 and 5 above, using their own user accounts.
  7. With the administrator account, you can use normal Microsoft Windows workflows to install software on the instance and upload data to the instance.  Everything is done just like you would normally do on any Windows desktop.   The administrator account by default is the only account that can install software.
Note: This tutorial was written in November of 2017.  The Amazon Web Services webpages may change over time.

suggested citation: please either cite the original article in the SAA Archaeological Record, or use the recommended citation and URL on this page at the Penn Library's ScholarlyCommons 

contact: please let me know if anything is unclear or if you have further questions, my email address is available on my homepage

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