• June 25, 2024

Propeller’s Origin Story: Building the Right Virtual Desktop for Education

Greg M. Smith
  • by Greg M. Smith

“Innovation comes from saying ‘no’ to 1,000 things.” – Steve Jobs

This next month marks Propeller’s anniversary. Seven years ago, we debuted the first, and still the only, virtual desktop made for education.

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. It certainly played a large role in the creation of our virtual desktop and lab solutions.

What started as a major challenge became the beginning of our story.

Researching Virtual Desktop Solutions for Education

In 2016, our co-founders, Greg M. Smith and Mohammad A. Haque, worked at the University of Maryland University College (now known as University of Maryland Global Campus), which served a global student body of 95,000.

The academic departments needed a way to provide students with access to specific software types and coursework.

“Often, teachers were spending the first week of class troubleshooting and acting as tech support to students,” Mohammad noted. “In some cases, a student would realize, too late, that their device couldn’t run the software they needed.”

Greg and Mohammad dove into the project, eager to find the best virtual desktops available in the higher education space.

“We realized there wasn’t anything in the market that was focused on higher education,” Greg explained. “There were only corporate solutions. In a professional setting, a few extra steps in a technological process won’t often influence employee satisfaction. But universities and colleges today face increasing challenges in student recruitment and retention. Technological constraints can have a major impact on student satisfaction and enrollment.”

Greg and Mohammad agreed: to deliver the best virtual desktop performance for education, student experience needed to come first.

Creating the Right Solution for Education

After reviewing the options, Greg believed he could make something better than the existing providers. And his boss said, “Prove it.”

Greg went to Mohammad, who was completely on board with the idea.

“It brought back memories from when I was in school,” Mohammad said. “I lived off-campus and often had to trek to the computer lab to access resources I couldn’t use at home. Having a virtual desktop would have made my life so much easier.”

The pair reached out to Amazon Web Services (AWS), presented their idea, and asked for help. When AWS agreed, Greg and Mohammad went to work to create the solution at the university.

Once he got the go-ahead, Greg secured a budget of $1.2 million and a development team to build out the features they envisioned.

 “We started in April. By late June, we had a working prototype. By July, we were production ready,” Greg remembered.

They launched for 300 students in August of 2016. The academic team came back with positive feedback and asked if the solution could accommodate another 4,000 students by the following month. By September, the solution met that goal. And the university came back and said, “We really love this. We want to roll it out to more students worldwide.”

With new marching orders for greater scale, Greg and Mohammad went back to work. They rolled out the model to 14,000 students. Much of the platform is still in use today. 

Greg recalled, “That was, and I believe it still is, AWS’ largest end-user implementation of Amazon Workspaces in higher education.”

Leveling the Playing Field for Students

Once the University of Maryland Global Campus had fully moved away from on-premises to a virtual solution, the value of Greg and Mohammed’s product became clear. The pair parted ways with UMUC and launched Propeller.

Since then, we’ve built up a roster of long-standing clients and continue to welcome new customers to the fold. We’d like to specifically thank some of the schools and teams we’ve worked with the longest, including Damian Doyle and David Toothe from the University of Maryland Baltimore County

When the Covid-19 pandemic first began, UMBC struggled to serve students during quarantine. They wanted to reach students in their homes to ensure continued access to the memory-intensive software they previously used in computer labs. Propeller delivered a cloud-based solution that enabled students to run high-compute, high-process, and memory-intensive applications — on Chromebooks.

Scott Obermeyer and Josh Tepen at Maryville University sought out transformational innovation. They also wanted to create an active learning ecosystem. In Propeller, they found a partner who shared their passion for learning and problem solving.

Propeller quickly converted the much of university’s physical labs to virtual labs. Maryville has also used Propeller to level the playing field and expand access to cybersecurity training.

What’s Next for Propeller?

As year seven gets underway, we’re excited to continue to meet the needs of our existing clients while welcoming new ones. We’d like to extend a warm welcome to two of our newest partners, Dickinson College and Portland Community College.

We’re working hard to expand access to students, ensuring everyone can get online and use the tools that power modern education.

If you’re looking for ways to better serve your student body and increase retention and enrollment, talk to us.

We’d love to find ways to work together to help your students achieve their full potential.

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