Grocer goes with thin clients

The U.K.'s Co-operative Group is using thin clients instead of PCs for most of its users, and is virtualizing just about all its applications, too.

Ian Cawson faced a hard deadline: Have a PC strategy in place for the Manchester, England-based retailer's 14 corporate offices, and have it ready when the new head office, a green building, opens in 2012. There wasn't time to conduct a full discovery process and gather all of the business requirements. "Best practices in this instance went out the window because of the time scales, and we knew it had to be done without business impact," he says.

Ian Cawson
Ian Cawson, technical architect at The Co-operative Group, says he enjoys the "slickness" of using VDI to distribute massive updates among 2,500 locations.

Cawson, a technical architect at Co-operative, standardized on Wyse thin-client hardware for 2,500 of the head office's 2,750 users, with XenDesktop virtual desktops for information workers and XenApp application delivery for task workers. Users who migrate to a virtual environment but have not been upgraded to a thin client will have their desktop computers locked down so as to mimic a thin client. "We're trying to keep complexity to a minimum," Cawson says.

The company has a mix of user profiles and specific needs. A user's environment, as currently configured, may or may not be able to be fully migrated. Depending on the situation, the user may stay on a physical Windows desktop, or the company may make changes to the user's desktop to allow it to be virtualized. But the first step is to evaluate the user profile as it exists.

[Read the main story, "Hosting virtual desktops: Tips for a successful outcome." And for much more information, check out "Complete coverage: Desktop virtualization".]

The Co-operative Group already has about 900 users on virtual Windows XP desktops and is adding another 40 to 50 Windows XP users per week. Cawson says users with few or no migration issues will be moved to Windows 7 as part of a general migration starting in September.

By using virtualization, he says, there's no need to reimage PCs in the field -- a significant savings in a company with 19,000 users. His team is using AppDNA's AppTitude to test for compliance and package up applications for delivery onto virtual desktops using Microsoft's App-V technology. AppTitude will also help reduce the number of supported desktop applications from 1,400 to about 750 or 800.

Applications will be virtualized by default. "Applications that do stay [on the local PC] will need a proper business case," Cawson says. In the head office, about 250 Windows desktops will fall into that category. Of the 19,000 users in offices worldwide, he expects 95% to be virtualized within three to five years.

Desktop virtualization

"If you're looking at virtual desktops as a cost-saving measure when replacing a desktop, it's not. A lot of it is intangibles," he says. Some of those are back-end benefits, such as how applications, updates and fixes are delivered and managed. But the company will also allow users to access their virtual desktops from their own computing devices, including the popular iPad, and it plans to offer a self-service model in which users will be able to install applications from an application store.

Cawson put together a video case study, which he played during seminars to help sell the concept to users. "We managed the introduction of a big cultural change that the business accepted. It was a damned sight easier when we had video evidence," he notes.

He also found champions for the technology. "When you get people who are positive, it makes the things you need to do easier," Cawson adds.

The success rate for packaging up and virtualizing users' desktops and associated applications hit 95%, substantially higher than the 70% Cawson had predicted.

While Cawson expects to see cost savings from desktop maintenance and support and energy-consumption efficiencies, so far those have been a bit slow in being realized. "The direct benefits only really come in once we're fully migrated," he says. But by the end of the second year, the company should see a return on its investment.

Next: "Hosting virtual desktops: Tips for a successful outcome"

Robert L. Mitchell is a national correspondent for Computerworld. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/rmitch, or e-mail him at rmitchell@computerworld.com.

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