A VDI Real-World Success Story (Part 1)

by [Published on 15 Sept. 2010 / Last Updated on 15 Sept. 2010]

A detailed view at Virginia Western’s implementation of VDI and some guidance for making good VDI decisions.

If you would like to read the next part in this article series please go to A VDI Real-World Success Story (Part 2).

Introduction

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions and products are popping up all over the place these days. At VMworld, this is a hot topic and virtualization’s next big frontier. At VMworld 2010, I got to listen to William East, Manager of Systems Support for Virginia Western Community College, describe his institution’s real-world and in-production virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) environment.

With so many organizations considering VDI, running pilots and trying to figure out the economics behind the technology, it was refreshing to hear about an actual, in-production solution as presented by William East, Manager of Systems Support for Virginia Western Community College. I was so excited about what I heard that I stopped working on the article I have been working on for the past few days and, with Mr. East’s permission, decided to write about what I heard in today’s session instead. Throughout this and the next article, I’ll detail what I learned about Virgina Western’s implementation and provide some guidance for making good VDI decisions.

This article is broken up into two parts:

  • Part 1. Virginia Western’s reasoning and general thought process.
  • Part 2. A look at their actual technical solution.

The challenges that were facing Virginia Western Community College’s existing desktop environment were very common ones that many organizations face and included:

  • Moves, adds & changes - Higher education institutions go through the annual office reshuffle during which time people all over campus move from one office to some other office. As you might imagine, this can create a tremendous burden in IT staffs as they need to move these machines from place to place… sometimes more than once!
  • Application software interoperability - Like most organizations, colleges and universities run all kinds of applications that don’t always play nice with one another.
  • License compliance - Tracking licenses can be an extreme challenge in even the best of environments.
  • Local administrator rights - Right or wrong, many users in colleges enjoy full administrative rights on their local desktops. As you may imagine, this privilege provides an excellent opportunity for malware to be introduced into the environment.
  • Software delivery - As some classes stop and others start up, there are new needs that arise and there’s not always a lot of time between classes to get new software deployed.
  • Complex remote access solutions - I hate VPN software. It’s finicky stuff. Virginia Western, like most places, uses VPNs to provide remote users with campus-like access to the college network.

The College’s Desktop Needs

In developing their VDI solution, Virginia Western carefully outlined the goals that they wanted to achieve. First and foremost, the college wanted to reduce the administrative overhead related to managing the desktop environment while at the same time making sure that all necessary functions could still be supported. Further, from a cost perspective, there was a desire to extend the desktop hardware replacement cycle in order to make better use of existing hardware.

The college IT staff also desired a way to move away from the constant need to reimage desktop machines and avoid the possibility of accidentally reimaging a machine that still held critical information. Even as IT staff worked with users to help them save their files to network based drives (their “I” drives at Virginia Western), users continued to save their files to the most easily accessible location which was often their local My Documents folder. This lack of separation between OS, user data and applications created a very inflexible environment.

The college also wanted to provide standard computing configurations that weren’t necessarily driven by local hardware. Further, the college was interested in deploying applications packaged in some way in order to make it easier for IT to provide users with all of the applications they needed, even if individual applications didn’t necessarily work well together on the same machine, such as multiple versions of Internet Explorer or other applications.

By implementing a virtual desktop environment, the College expected to see a number of benefits from the solution, including:

  • Flexibility - While the college wanted to provide a standard computing environment, the IT staff understood that there would be a need for some custom systems or some way to customize individual systems for specific needs.

  • Mobility - With a large population of students, many learning in remote locations or in online environments, the ability to access the virtual desktop environment from any location was a key driver. A VDI environment moves the full desktop computing environment into the data center where, when configured appropriately, it can be consumed from anywhere and across a wide variety of devices, including PCs with VDI client software, terminals and even mobile devices such as iPads.

  • Application flexibility - Virginia Western has a need to provide the ability to run multiple versions of the same application on their systems. Some professors teach using different versions of the same application, so this application flexibility is very important. For example, one professor may be teaching a class that absolutely requires Office 2007 while another teaches a class that requires Office 2010. A VDI solution with tools like VMware’s ThinApp all but eliminates this challenge.

  • Eliminate time-consuming, manual “freezing” of systems - Faronics Deep Freeze has long been a staple at many colleges. This tool allows IT staff to deploy machines that always remain in a constant state so that students and faculty can always have an expectation that a particular computer lab will operate as expected. Further, students can experiment at their heart’s content because after the next reboot, that system will revert to its constant state. When changes need to be made to the lab, though, the real work begins. Machines must be individually unfrozen, changes made and then the machines refrozen. It’s just one more process that creates an exception-based desktop management environment. The college realized that the use of non-persistent virtual machines would achieve the exact same goal as the use of frozen systems.

  • Extended hardware life - As I mentioned before, a VDI solution has the potential to extend the life of current hardware. This was one of the goals for Virginia Western as well as one of their expected benefits.

  • Better security - A lost laptop can really wreck your day especially if that laptop contains all kinds of personal information about customers or, in the case of Virginia Western, about their students. Once a VDI solution is implemented, no data ever leaves the data center. Screens are pushed down to the remote access device, but all computing, processing and data storage happens in and stays in the data center.

  • Easier transition to new operating systems - For the systems that are based on the VDI solution, operating system upgrades – with the exception of the user education component – are easy since the individual clients don’t care what OS they see.

Time for a Reality Check

In all things, it’s good to take a step back and analyze the whole picture, especially if things look too good to be true! With VDI, the benefits can appear too good to be true at first. As time goes on, however, it quickly becomes apparent that a lot of the VDI hype is real, but there are potential pitfalls.

First of all, what will be the labor need for implementation and ongoing maintenance? A VDI implementation requires a lot of upfront design work and intensive testing to make sure that the solution meets expectations. Virginia Western did a whole lot of work in this area, even going so far as to use mind mapping software to fully analyze all of the potential issues that could arise.

Speaking of potential issues, when you consider moving your desktop processing load into the data center, the needs of the data center take on a whole new meaning. After all, if a server “blips” users probably won’t even notice it. However, if a desktop blips, it will be seen in real-time. Can the data center’s existing power and cooling systems support a bunch of new servers and associated storage? If there enough room in the data center to add more racks if necessary?

And then there is the cost issue. A VDI implementation can require a lot of infrastructure – new servers, new storage, related networking and clients – thin clients and repurposed PCs and laptops. Organizations need to carefully analyze their workloads to make sure that a VDI implementation truly makes sense. If you can’t achieve reasonable virtual desktop per host density, the solution’s economics may not make sense, but you need to make sure you consider all cost facets, including:

  • The obvious costs, such as price of terminals vs. that of full-fledged PCs.
  • Cost of new servers to support the VDI function.
  • Cost of new storage that is sized and configured for desktops.
  • Costs to add significant new infrastructure to the data center.
  • Costs to train staff on the implementation and management of a VDI solution.
  • The costs for the virtualization solution itself, which can be significant. Fortunately for Virginia Western, educational institutions generally receive reasonable discounts.

But, there are major costs savings possibilities with VDI, too, including:

  • Power savings - A switch to terminals can be really beneficial from a power perspective. With no moving parts, terminals generally require a fraction of the power of their more power hungry fat clients. Obviously, some of this power savings is offset by the power sucking servers and storage, but it’s important to do the math to see where you fall.

  • Longer hardware life - Although some terminals may cost as much as or even more than a fat client, their life is generally longer since there are no moving parts.

  • Lots of clients on just a few servers - With centralized servers supporting 10, 20, 30, and even 50 virtual desktops per server, there is certainly an economy of scale to be had with VDI.

  • Labor savings - If a VDI infrastructure is implemented correctly, there can be a tremendous labor savings as IT staff no longer has to constantly visit user desktops to handle problems. Hardware failures on the client side require a simple swap out. A server failure results in the desktop load being shifted to other servers in the VDI server pool.

The Project Lives

Before moving forward to the funding request stage, William East and his implementation team carefully thought through all of these issues and came to the conclusion that they could overcome the challenges and reap many of the benefits they expected to see. In the next part of this article series, you will learn about the specific hardware and software Virginia Western chose and will learn about how well their hoped-for expectations met the reality of a full implementation.

If you would like to read the next part in this article series please go to A VDI Real-World Success Story (Part 2).

The Author — Scott D. Lowe

Scott D. Lowe avatar

Scott has written thousands of articles and blog posts and has authored or coauthored three books, including Microsoft Press’ Exchange Server 2007 Administrators Companion and O’Reilly’s Home Networking: The Missing Manual. In 2012, Scott was also awarded VMware's prestigious vExpert designation for his contributions to the virtualization community.

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