Eddie Wassman and Sgt. Dustin Beason deployed desktop virtualization on thin clients throughout the Knox County Sheriff's Office to enhance the user computing experience.

Dynamic Duo

Teaming desktop virtualization with thin clients can save money, ease management and improve user satisfaction.

While desktop virtualization alone has compelling benefits, pairing the technology with thin clients reaps even greater rewards.

Centralized application and data management combined with hardware that has few moving parts provides the security, low maintenance and price point that state and local governments require.

Eddie Wassman, IT specialist at the Knox County Sheriff's Office in Tennessee, paired VMware View desktop virtualization with Wyse Technology R90L terminals and has experienced such success that he made a bold prediction: "Eventually, I can see not having any PCs in this building."

Ted Ritter, senior research analyst at Nemertes Research, has noticed an increasing trend toward desktop virtualization and thin clients. In a recent study of IT organizations, he found that half expect to have some virtual desktops in production by the end of this year. And he adds that thin clients make sense as the end-user hardware to support virtualization because of their low cost and long life span. "Thin clients extend the typical three-to-four-year PC refresh cycle," he says. "Thin clients tend to be solid state, so there's no reason why they shouldn't be able to last 10 years."

Cost-Effective Clients

Wassman has already deployed 50 Wyse terminals across several departments, including the jail housing units and unit control desks. Employees access their virtual desktop by logging in to the VMware ESX server via the Wyse terminal. Once authenticated, they have access to the applications they need, including an inmate management system, web browser and productivity suite. Even the facility commander and administration are using the terminals for their day-to-day activities.

The Knox County Sheriff's Office has reaped tangible benefits from this move, starting with cost. Wassman says the average PC costs between $600 and $800 apiece, while the Wyse terminals are $300 to $400 each. He does warn that there may be an upfront investment for infrastructure improvements, such as bandwidth, servers and redundancy, as well as licensing.

The desktop virtualization/thin client combo has also had a positive impact on the help desk, rendering user support almost self-service, according to Sgt. Dustin Beason. Because the desktops are housed on the server, if a thin client fails, users can simply swap it out for another one without having to wait for IT to fix their machine or configure a new one. "We're a 24x7 operation, so this has really boosted customer service without us having to add IT staff," Beason says.

Administrative Boon

For Cyrus Hurley, director of information technology for Ashe County in Jefferson, N.C., using desktop virtualization in conjunction with his Wyse V10L thin-client desktops and HP Compaq 6720t thin-client notebooks has eased administration. Using his virtualization software, he can create a single standard image of a desktop and then clone it for as many users as necessary. For instance, he developed a virtual desktop for the Social Services Department that featured the food stamp, Medicaid and Medicare applications they use. Then he easily spun up 70 more versions of that image for all the employees in that department.


Average number of watts used by a thin client connected to a keyboard, mouse and monitor
Source: Wyse Technology

It also eases the burden of supporting seasonal workers, such as those who deal with subsidized heating calls in the winter, Hurley says, because he doesn't have to configure, test and maintain separate PCs for each temporary worker.

At Knox County, the centralization of applications and data means that the enterprise is far more secure. If a user's system gets a virus, he or she simply logs off, and at the next login the virtual desktop fails back to its "clean" state.

IT can also be more proactive about securing applications. "In a PC environment, we didn't update or patch software immediately unless wehad to. Now we're able to push out security fixes automatically so everything is always up to date," Wassman says. The terminals don't hold any data on the desktop, so he doesn't worry if they are lost or stolen.

Another bonus includes built-in disaster recovery. Rather than having to gather up all the PCs in the event of an emergency, Wassman knows all the data is accessible on the servers, and he can quickly get employees up and running from their homes or other remote locations.

A Point on Peripherals

While Wassman and Hurley are bullish on the technology, Indiana CIO Gerry Weaver says it has its limitations. In fact, Weaver scaled back his expectations after encountering some problems during a pilot. "Essentially, what we found is that desktop virtualization and thin clients together don't offer the flexibility we need," Weaver says.

Indiana workers need access to a variety of applications and peripherals, which is counter to the idea of matching the virtual desktop with thin clients. Weaver's team in the Office of Technology had to create workarounds, which was a management nightmare. Today, he uses the technology combo solely at the Bureau of Motor Vehicles for self-service areas that need access only to a browser.

Compatible Partners?

Desktop virtualization and thin clients work best in certain environments. Here are some factors to consider:

  • Are all the users doing the same job? This is ideal because you can create one image and deploy it to many.
  • Do users rely on a lot of peripherals? Check this before you commit to thin clients because some have limited peripheral support.
  • Do you have enough bandwidth? Experts recommend a 10 gigabit-per-second backplane for thin-client access so that users don't take a performance hit.
  • Do you have redundancy in the data center? Remember, users are counting on these servers more than ever, so you need to have failover in case of a server malfunction or outage.
  • Do you have offsite disaster recovery? Again, server access is mission-critical because users will not have any applications or data on their desktop. Ensure that you are backing up servers and storage to an offsite location.
David Luttrell
Apr 22 2010