A VDI Real-World Success Story (Part 2)

by [Published on 12 Oct. 2010 / Last Updated on 12 Oct. 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 first part in this article series please go to A VDI Real-World Success Story (Part 1).

Introduction

VDI is a killer app when implemented correctly. It can result in lower costs, a better end user experience and all new service capabilities. In this article, you will learn about Virginia Western Community College’s VDI implementation. College personnel presented their project at VMworld 2010 in San Francisco and have graciously allowed me to share with you their success story and lessons learned.

In part 1 of this series, I introduced to you the desktop support challenges faced by Virginia Western Community College and how the college felt that a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solution might be able to help them solve these challenges. That article ended with some general VDI guidance and with a promise that I’d follow up with specifics regarding Virginia Western’s technical implementation and observed outcomes.

The Pilot

For the college’s pilot/proof on concept phase of the VDI project, they decided to test with 60 clients in a relatively low-end way. For this pilot, two HP DL380 G5 servers were used. Rather than invest in shared storage for this pilot phase, the college instead relied on local storage in each of the two HP servers. For a VDI platform, the college chose VMware’s View product. Because no shared storage was used, the college did not implement vMotion or other high availability measures during the pilot phase.

In order to get to a point of user testing to a point where users would feel comfortable, the college created pools of Windows XP machines that were derived from their existing standard desktop image. That was the software side. On the hardware side, college IT staff used a variety of devices including thin clients, laptops and repurposed existing desktop PCs.

This brings up an important consideration in VDI implementations: You can use just about anything as a client. You can undertake a VDI project with a lot of the hardware you already have. Any device you decide to use becomes nothing more than an endpoint. If you decide to repurpose existing desktops, you can simply replace them with newer devices – such as thin clients – as the repurpose devices fail. In this way, you can squeeze more life out of existing hardware. Obviously, there are a couple of downsides to reusing existing hardware. First, older fat clients such as PCs don’t have the power savings benefits of thin clients. Second, if one of your major goals in a VDI implementation is reducing desktop hardware management tasks, continuing to use old hardware may not bring out the most benefits.

During the pilot project, college IT personnel tested remote access to the VDI service to see how well it performed. Bear in mind that one of the goals behind the VDI project was to reduce (and maybe even eliminate) the use of VPN clients. In order to demonstrate to users the administrative potential of the solution, Outlook training classes were held using the VDI architecture.

On the technical side, the college was able to verify that the pilot servers ran 30 virtual machines each with local storage with no problems.

This mini-pilot proved to be a success for the college. As such, they gained approval to expand the project from the pilot phase’s modest 60 client count up to 200 clients in a phase 1 project.

Phase 1 and Beyond

Before simply embarking on phase 1, college IT personnel carefully considered their observations from the pilot phase and decided to plan phase 1 in such a way as to build a viable, scalable foundation on which a much more significant VDI implementation could be based. The college spent considerable time carefully considering the architectural needs for the new solution and spent a lot of quality time with Visio creating drawings.

This demonstrates the importance that Virginia Western placed on carefully analyzing, planning and dissecting their implementation to make certain that their design met the needs of their users. Where appropriate, the college made modifications to improve the overall service. Further, there were some choices made in the pilot phase that were changed in phase 1.

Most notably, whereas the pilot project relied on local storage, for phase 1 and beyond, the college made the decision to move the VDI infrastructure’s storage to their existing EMC SAN. Eventually, the college expanded their storage through the addition of a NetApp V3140 filer and Fibre Channel switches that now support the VDI services. These additional hardware items also necessitated the additional of more batteries.

Next, in order to support 170 additional clients, the college bumped the server count from two to five. With the expanded server count, there was also a need for some additional networking infrastructure including the addition of two gigabit Ethernet switches.

As for funding, college IT staff prepared a presentation outlining funding needs for the project and the administration approved a $350,000 funding request to implement the project. The presentation outlined the proposed design as a foundational architecture that could be easily scaled as the college decided to grow the VDI implementation without having to constantly reinvent the wheel.

Outcomes

In any project, it’s important to look back and determine what outcomes were achieved and the list of achievements for Virginia Western is impressive, but there were other observations as well.

First of all, the college determined that the use of VDI for distance learning and hybrid classes was a great success. Now, classes that would have required a physical computer lab with specialty software can be taught from afar.

Further, as a part of the project, the college moved to a hybrid application delivery model that includes both virtualized applications – using ThinApp – and applications installed inside each virtual machine. Many of the college’s applications are, in fact, packaged with ThinApp and deployed via security policies defined by virtue of Active Directory policies and memberships.

From an access perspective, the college provides a number of different access vectors including browser-based access to virtual desktop and applications as well as full client software via View and its broker. The college has already identified one major operational benefit to the VDI implementation, too. Western Virginia tends to get a bit of snow and the VDI system provides a great remote access mechanism for faculty, staff and students so that they do not have to travel in this inclement weather. The faculty and staff virtual machines provide a full campus-like computing experience. Moreover, Mac users can enjoy the exact same kind of access as their Windows counterparts since the virtual desktop can be accessed from Mac computers as well. The college has found that, let alone the fact that users have accepted the new VDI, they’ve actually begun to depend on them due to the mobility benefits they provide.

For lab situations, instructors can use the local workstations or they can opt to access the virtual desktop environment to teach their classes. VDI has added a great deal of flexibility to the computing choices for the college. For operating system migrations, the college has implement a system that allows them to phase Windows 7 in as it makes sense. A series of Windows 7 virtual machines are available and accessible from anywhere, so users can make the choice as to what operating system they’ll use to get their work done or teach their classes. When necessary, IT staff can quickly provision special purpose virtual machines in minutes rather than the hours or days that it used to take.

In addition to these user-facing benefits, the IT staff now enjoys fewer requests for VPN software making support much easier. For remote sites, IT staff can more easily support their computing needs since the virtual desktops are now hosted in the data center meaning that less on-site support is required.

With the initial phase 1 VDI implementation in place, the college has successfully decoupled the operating system, applications and data. When you think about it, this is a good thing! No longer do technicians have to worry about accidentally wiping someone’s documents when a machine is reimaged. Applications themselves are even operating system agnostic to a point. For example, with ThinApp, even Internet Explorer 6 can be made to run under Windows 7.

Another observed benefit has been a reduced need to provide all faculty members with laptops. Speaking from experience, I really like this outcome! Laptops are expensive, potential security risks and can be difficult to support. On the security front, really any mobile device is a security risk. After all, that device spends time outside the protective walls of the campus security systems. With VDI, people simply attach to a desktop image that is hosted inside a trusted data center.

One challenge that the college has faced with regard to this implementation revolves around the use of PCoIP, which is intended to provide a better overall experience with regard to graphics. PCoIP is not a WAN-friendly protocol so overall graphics performance from remote clients may not enjoy the same experience as on campus users.

The college has also learned that monitoring is absolutely essential to the overall environment. Without good monitoring, IT staff cannot take proactive steps to correct issues that may arise. While users may forgive the occasional server glitch, you can be sure that they will complain loudly if similar glitches take place in the desktop environment.

The Final Tally

The college has targeted up to 800 academic and admin desktops for possible inclusion in the VDI system. On the software and hardware front, while phase 1 started with five servers, the college now has eight clustered highly available servers (HP DL380 G6, 128GB RAM) connected to the NetApp storage system, which college personnel indicated is “essentially sleeping” since their VDI implementation is not placing it under a massive load. The entire architecture is based on vSphere and the college hopes that the currently installed hardware can support up to 400 clients. As necessary, additional servers can be added to the resource pool to unlock additional capacity. The college’s virtual machines run a combination of Windows XP and Windows 7 32-bit.

Summary

I’d like to again thank Mr. William East, Manager of Systems Support for Virginia Western Community College, for allowing me to share his institution’s project with you. His success certainly lends great credence to the benefits extoled in VDI literature.

If you would like to read the first part in this article series please go to A VDI Real-World Success Story (Part 1).

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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