David Siles, CTO of Kane County, Ill., counts on desktop virtualization to reduce his total cost of ownership.

Virtualizing Desktops

Deployments strengthen security and cut maintenance costs.

Kane County, Ill., has reduced the total cost of ownership of PCs from several thousand dollars to just $700 by implementing desktop virtualization. Since 2003, the county has virtualized 600 of its 1,500 desktops using VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. “Our goal is to eventually get 80 percent of our users on thin clients,” says Chief Technology Officer David Siles.

Desktop virtualization moves the guts of personal computing — the bulk of the processing power, applications and stored data — to servers while maintaining the look and feel of a PC for the user. In Kane County, being able to update and patch software from a central location reduces maintenance expenses. As a result, Siles can run a lean shop: Each of his IT technicians is responsible for 500 desktops. Desktop virtualization also aids in security because sensitive data does not reside on the desktop.

Such benefits have pushed desktop virtualization to the forefront of technology trends. IT research firm Gartner of Stamford, Conn., predicts that worldwide desktop virtualization will grow to include 660 million PCs by 2011, from fewer than 5 million in 2006.

Virtualization Varieties

There are three forms of desktop virtualization: server-side, client-side and application virtualization.

  • Server-side virtualization: Low-cost PCs or diskless thin-client workstations, such as Wyse Technology’s S10 Thin Client and Hewlett-Packard’s Neoware c50, are linked to servers where the processing takes place. Applications are delivered to thin clients using virtual desktop infrastructure technology products, such as Citrix XenDesktop, Virtual Iron Virtualization Manager and VMware VDI.
  • Client-side virtualization: A single desktop PC runs multiple operating systems concurrently, such as Windows XP and Mac OS, through a product such as Parallels Workstation. This allows users to access applications created for different operating systems.
    Some virtualization products, such as VMware’s ACE, also let IT administrators decide which users can download data to a local hard drive and which must keep all data on the server. This is particularly useful when working with contract and remote workers.
  • Application virtualization: Users access an application on demand from a central server using a product like Citrix XenApp (formerly called Presentation Server). The application is cached on a desktop, making it useful for mobile workers who want to run it while disconnected from the network.

Application virtualization also allows Macintosh, Windows, Linux and other users to run Windows or Unix apps directly from the server, without having to upgrade or give up their client hardware. “If it runs on one, it runs on many,” says Siles, who has begun using application virtualization in addition to VDI desktop virtualization. “That eliminates a lot of headaches for application conflicts.”

Each form blends the best aspect of the mainframe- and minicomputer-based networks commonplace in the 1970s and early 1980s — data security — with personal productivity and creativity.

This blend holds strong appeal for Iowa’s Department of Investigations and Appeals (DIA), which investigates restaurants, food processors, nursing homes and foster-care providers. Using Citrix software, contract workers log on to systems throughout Iowa, but the computing takes place on servers in Des Moines. This allows DIA to restrict the flow of sensitive data.

“We have [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act] data, sensitive investigative reports and information on foster-care kids,” says Timothy McLaughlin, CIO of the DIA. “We have a lot of data we need to protect.”

Andi Mann, research director at Boulder, Colo.-based market researcher Enterprise Management Associates, credits such security and compliance concerns for the rising popularity of desktop virtualization among government and business users. “This is especially true when you have a lot of contract workers. Desktop
virtualization lets you bring workers on and off the network very quickly,” says Mann, who estimates that demand for virtualization products among government and business users is now rising 28 percent annually.

Meanwhile, the DIA is considering taking desktop virtualization a step further. “We are looking at diskless machines very strongly. That would enhance security because nothing could ever reside on the individual machines,” says McLaughlin.
For now, the DIA encrypts entire disks, rather than just individual files.

Money Savings

In addition to enhanced security, desktop virtualization is attractive to government enterprises because it can save money in several ways.

First, it can lengthen the refresh cycle from two or three years to six or seven. Since most, but not all, of the processing takes place in a remote server, it is not as important to have new equipment.

Second, if not all workers need a desktop at the same time, a single machine can be virtualized for multiple users. The city of Little Rock, Ark., is looking to cut costs by enabling office workers to share virtualized desktop PCs, says Randy Foshee, director of information technology. “There are a lot of offices where you could have two, four or six different users,” says Foshee.

Third, as desktop systems are replaced, a thin client can be used in many instances. So, for example, rather than paying $1,500 for a desktop, a $250 thin client is used.

Fourth, software maintenance becomes faster and less costly. “The total cost of ownership has little to do with the hardware,” says John Gillespie, CIO and chief operating officer of Iowa’s Information Technology Enterprise division. “It’s the patching and the servicing and the lost productivity. Managing desktops is a headache. That’s why you do virtualization.” Several Iowa agencies, including DIA and the Judicial Department, are now operating desktop virtualization projects, he says.

Fifth, software licensing costs may drop. “It’s cost-effective for us,” says the DIA’s McLaughlin. “Other than the initial costs, the licenses are costing me $1,125 a year for renewal for 25 concurrent users,” he says. While only 20 DIA workers are typically using the Citrix software at the same time, it is available to 200 users. “So, I’m spending only $5 per user.”

A word of caution, however: Not all vendors offer special license rates for virtualized software, and not all software is optimized for virtualization. And the savings are offset by the cost of virtualization software, which typically runs about $250 per user for the initial license and $50 each for renewal; deployment of the software; and the purchase and deployment of thin clients, blade servers or other new hardware.

The bottom line: For most government users, the savings are likely to be real, not virtual.

The city of Little Rock, Ark., has dabbled in desktop virtualization before. Just over a year ago, the city’s Fleet Services Department cancelled its program after diskless workstations deployed in its garages were ravaged by grease, battery acid and other corrosives. The data was safe, but the monitors, keyboards and mice were ruined, says Randy Foshee, director of information technology for the city.

Desktop Virtualization in a Nutshell

  • A computer’s operating system, applications and files are separated from the physical location where the user is accessing them.
  • Host servers can store dedicated desktops, so that users can log on from different workstations and feel as though they are still on their desktop machine.
  • Desktop virtualization can also be used to isolate different applications and operating systems, such as Macintosh and Windows, into virtual machines on a single local PC.
  • Some desktop virtualization software lets IT administrators choose whether data is stored on the user’s local hard drive or, more securely, in the data center.
  • Because virtualized desktops’ software can be maintained centrally, the desktops cost less to maintain. Hardware costs can also be reduced because virtualized desktops share processing power.
Jeff Ledrum
Mar 27 2008