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Two IT pros show how VDI can change the desktop management game

Two college CIOs explain that when used in the right situations, and with proper planning, VDI does deliver on its promise of easier management, flexibility and efficiency.

VDI can simplify the tasks that make desktop administrators hate their lives -- the one-by-one operating system upgrades, Windows patch management, client hardware failures and end-user mishaps. But virtual desktops won't solve any problems without proper planning and infrastructure.

We moved to VDI because we want to get out of the business of managing desktops.

Dustin Fennell, CIO, Scottsdale Community College

In fact, many virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) proofs of concept fail because of infrastructure, said Tom Scanlon, CIO of the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences (MCPHS).

When MCPHS explored a move from physical desktops to VMware View virtual desktops last year, Scanlon quickly learned that the college's infrastructure needed serious upgrades to handle the higher bandwidth, storage area network (SAN) and CPU power requirements.

"I thought we could support 24 desktops with our existing infrastructure during a pilot, and I almost pulled the plug because the response time was awful," Scanlon said. "But that wasn't the software's fault; it was our hardware.

"Once we went through and refreshed the hardware, it was like night and day," he added. "You have to have the right equipment, [or] you won't get a good interpretation of how [virtual desktops] will work for you."

The case for VDI
Despite the added infrastructure investments, VDI still made sense for MCPHS because the school had to simplify desktop management for the 19 IT pros who support 4,000 students plus faculty and staff at its three campuses. Plus, the college's computer labs are on an accelerated refresh cycle of new PCs every two years. That cycle is expensive not only in terms of hardware, but also in IT support, Scanlon said.

MCPHS hired Salem, N.H.-based integrator Mosaic Technology to redesign its infrastructure. It did a SAN refresh with Dell EqualLogic iSCSI storage and updated IBM BladeCenter servers with six-core processors and maxed-out RAM, Scanlon said.

So far, the school has replaced about 700 desktops at computer labs in Boston, Worcester, Mass., and Manchester, N.H., with thin clients and VMware View 4.5 desktops using PC over IP (PCoIP). Scanlon said now that the virtual desktops are properly provisioned, the performance level is about the same as a regular PC, and it's consistent.

"I haven't had any complaints from the students, and believe me, if they weren't happy, they'd be outside my office with pitchforks," Scanlon said.

Scanlon chose View because MCPHS is already a VMware shop using ESX to virtualize servers. The lack of profile management in VMware View didn't matter, because the college's virtual desktops are all generic. A new desktop image is provided each time a new user logs in, and MCPHS uses Google Apps instead of locally managed Microsoft Office software to reduce storage requirements, he said.

The downside for end users is video performance, particularly over the wide area network (WAN), because View 4.5 doesn't support PCoIP over the WAN. But PCoIP is supported over the WAN in View 4.6, which the college will upgrade to over the coming months.

The big benefit to students is that they don't have to go to the college computer lab to run college-owned apps. "Now they can access all programs and applications from their own devices, from anywhere," Scanlon said. "No one has to wait for a computer terminal anymore."

Dustin Fennell, CIO of Scottsdale Community College in Arizona, moved to virtual desktops in 2008 for similar benefits. "Our primary reason was that the traditional black-box replacement cycle is expensive, inefficient and not sustainable when budgets are declining," he said.

The college, which supports about 12,000 students per semester and more than 800 employees, uses Citrix XenDesktop and XenApp to deliver applications and data to remote students and faculty. Scottsdale Community also created a Web portal for end users to access college applications, including AutoCAD and Adobe Creative Suite 5, that are delivered from either XenDesktop 5 or XenApp, depending on the app.

"We moved to VDI because we want to get out of the business of managing desktops," Fennell said. "Now we provide stateless personal desktops that follow users. And our apps actually perform better than they do on a brand-new computer, because we aren't installing apps on the system, slowing it down."

VDI also makes operating system upgrades much faster, MCPHS's Scanlon said. In the past, his IT department used Symantec Ghost software to do Windows upgrades one by one. Now they can use that imaging tool with View to roll out multiple Windows 7 desktop images in minutes.

And when end users mess up their systems, IT can roll out a new desktop without having to touch the users' machines. "Before, if someone had an application issue, we would have to take everything offline," Scanlon said. "Now we can just update the image and tell the virtual desktop to rebuild, and the problem is fixed in a matter of hours."

He said Scottsdale Community College is taking things a step further and moving toward an environment where there are no OSes on any client machines, and everything is virtual, Fennell said.

For a while, the college ran in hybrid mode, with some apps delivered from the Citrix environment and some apps running locally. Now, there are no locally installed apps, other than Microsoft Office on Windows. "Eventually, there will be nothing on the endpoint device," he said.

VDI: An investment in efficiency
Moving to virtual desktops won't reduce MCPHS's IT costs for at least a few years because of startup expenses including licensing and infrastructure, but the college expects to see a return on its VDI investment within five years. For example, Scanlon said he spent about $300 per thin client, which is expected to last more than five years, versus $600 for the laptops that MCPHS bought every two years.

Scottsdale Community College funded its virtual desktop buildout using capital that would have been spent on PC replacements, and though VDI does cost more upfront, the long-term efficiencies are significant, Fennell said.

"Virtualizing your desktop environment may cost more, but if you think outside the box and look at what the end users want and need, between VDI and application virtualization, you can provide better access and better performance," Fennell said. "We save $250,000 per year at this point, and now the IT department actually funds innovation grants.... It has been a transformational change for us."

Let us know what you think about this story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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