Government agencies make move to desktop virtualization

These government agencies are reaping the early benefits of moving to desktop virtualization.

With efficiency programs in full swing, virtualization is high on the list of priorities for federal, state and local governments throughout the U.S. In fact, virtualization is third on a list of five major technologies that the federal government will support with big spending increases in the years to come, according to Input, a market research firm.

Much of the action has been on the server virtualization side, where cost reductions are dramatic, but interest is growing in desktop virtualization as well. In a 2010 survey of 700 small, midsize and large companies and government agencies by Information Technology Intelligence Corp., 50% of the respondents said they had server virtualization initiatives under way, and 17% said they had begun desktop virtualization projects. That percentage will grow, according to Gartner Inc., which expects the virtual desktop market to rise from 500,000 units in 2009 to 49 million in 2013.

For governments, the main attractions of virtual desktops are ease of manageability and lower costs. "There's been a recognition that the cost of the IT infrastructure, added up across all agencies, has been more expensive than it needs to be," says Raymond Bjorklund, senior vice president at FedSources, a consulting firm in McLean, Va. "IT consolidation and virtualization provides a set of tools to help with that."

But because of the upfront investment required, the move to virtualized desktops will happen incrementally, Bjorklund says. "Dollars are appropriated to agencies on an annual basis, and Congress holds the purse strings," he says. "It's extremely hard for agencies to do a grand-scale project that requires investments for longer-term savings."

Here's a look at two local governments and one state agency that are making the first moves into desktop virtualization.

One Virtualization Leads to Another

After embarking on a server virtualization project, a North Carolina county moves to the desktop.

What's behind a successful desktop virtualization project? Brandon Jackson, CIO of Gaston County, N.C., would tell you that server virtualization is key.

Three years ago, Gaston County began a server and storage virtualization project that is now 70% complete. The initiative eliminated server sprawl and boosted staff productivity by 40%. Now the 35-department county is turning to desktop virtualization. The first phase will include 250 of the 1,200 users; the ultimate goal is 100% virtualization.

According to Jackson, the two projects are as different as night and day. "Because they both have the word virtualization in them, people think they go hand in hand," he says. "But desktop virtualization is so different from server virtualization." Server virtualization entails multiple instances running on individual physical servers, he says, whereas desktop virtualization -- at least for Gaston County -- will mean removing applications and ultimately the operating system from desktop PCs and running application images on virtualized servers for use by multiple people.

But as different as the two are, they also are a good match, Jackson says. If you pursue virtualized desktops without the server component, he points out, you still need a certain number of servers dedicated to a certain number of users. "If you can virtualize those servers, you can save a lot in terms of physical servers," he adds.

The main reason Jackson embraced desktop virtualization was to save money. The savings come from the use of less expensive desktop hardware ($300 to $600 for a thin client versus $1,100 for a PC) and a move to longer technology refresh cycles (six to 10 years for thin clients versus four years for PCs). So far, Jackson hasn't invested in any thin clients because he can repurpose existing PCs that would have needed replacement but are able to run a desktop operating system and Citrix XenDesktop. (The county is using VMware for server virtualization and Citrix on the desktop.)

There is a trade-off with licensing costs, Jackson says, since he is now paying for Citrix licenses, which are about $70 to $150 per user. Still, he anticipates 12% to 18% savings per year, thanks to the hardware changes. "Instead of having to replace 250 to 300 desktops at $1,100 each, we're making a $250,000 investment in our server hardware and the Citrix software," he says.

More cost savings will occur when the county moves off old PCs to thin clients, at which point Jackson can stop investing in new desktop operating systems. Volume purchasing also helps reduce Citrix licensing costs. "Once we crossed the 1,000-user threshold, it made a big difference," he says.

A second benefit of desktop virtualization is ease of administration. Centralized maintenance won't make it possible for the county to reduce IT head count, but it will free up staffers to focus on more important projects, Jackson says. With some desktop virtualization implementations, the server runs a custom image of each desktop. At Gaston County, however, servers run application images, with each server running multiple applications for a certain number of users. So if you have 1,500 users and have defined five general roles for that user base, you might have five different images for those five roles instead of 1,500 images.

The biggest challenge so far, Jackson says, has been ensuring an accurate inventory of the county's desktop applications and understanding their needs in a virtual environment. For instance, some applications need to interact with proprietary hardware such as scanners or, in one case, a digital scale.

But Jackson believes that the efficiencies, cost savings and overall architecture of desktop virtualization make dealing with challenges like those worthwhile. "There's an awful lot of wasted horsepower on the desktop, and it's better to invest those computing resources in the data center," he says.

A Slow but Inevitable Move to Desktop Virtualization

For Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County, it's more about improving service than saving money.

There are two sides to the desktop virtualization coin for Daniel Rainey, IT director for the city of Ann Arbor, Mich., and Dale Vanderford, manager of technical operations for both the city of Ann Arbor and Washtenaw County. On one hand, the technology has great potential for improving users' computing experience, with simplified desktop management and maintenance. On the other hand, it's difficult for smaller governments like theirs to justify the cost of virtualization.

As a result, both Rainey and Vanderford -- who have been sharing a data center since 2009 -- are cautiously stepping into desktop virtualization, with an eye on both its benefits and its costs.

Vanderford has rolled out 100 virtualized desktops for public use in county employment offices. "We have a lot of people come in and search for jobs or update their résumés," Vanderford explains. "We almost had to put a PC technician on-site because [machines] were breaking on a daily basis."

With the new VMware View-based desktops, however, "maintenance is amazingly low," Vanderford says. The implementation is also helping him begin to understand how desktop virtualization would play out for employees. While it wouldn't make sense for all desktops, such as the ones used by engineers who need high-end processing power, he is eyeing it for people in administrative roles. "Patching and upgrades would be easier, and if the hardware breaks, you can just take a new machine off the shelf," he says.

Rainey has a smaller implementation -- just 25 test machines for government employees -- and he is considering virtualization in order to simplify desktop management and limit downtime, particularly for emergency workers and field operations. "We spend a lot of time on the help desk troubleshooting machines that are used by a lot of people," Rainey says. "It really is a service improvement, especially for those high-maintenance PCs."

The main benefits of desktop virtualization are threefold, Rainey says: more desktop standardization, reduced downtime and a shift toward the infrastructure of the future, which Rainey sees as off-premises computing. "As we get better at understanding how to deploy these thinner clients, we can begin the move to where the hosted environment might be somewhere other than our data center," he says.

However, Rainey says, for Ann Arbor and Washtenaw, which have just under 2,000 desktops between them, virtualization doesn't save money. "You're shifting the cost to the data center, but you're improving the user experience," he says. "We're just trying to take the dollars we get and use them differently, to improve our effectiveness."

Several things contribute to the overall cost. One is staffing, Rainey says, since employees above the PC technician level earn 50% more than people in that position. Another is recurring licensing and maintenance fees for the virtualization software and the applications. "To make it cost-effective, you have to get to a certain size," Rainey says. "With 2,000 desktops, it might make sense, so the logical next step in the evolution is for a vendor to become the provider of the service to you so they could scale."

Yet another cost is in the data center. "Your servers and storage all need to be SAN-based, so it's very expensive," Vanderford says, acknowledging that the only reason Washtenaw's implementation saves money is that he has yet to invest in thin clients but instead is repurposing existing PCs.

State, county and bigger city governments with, say, 20,000 employees would be more likely to find cost advantages, Rainey says. Still, he and Vanderford both believe that desktop virtualization is inevitable. "We're still hoping to find the cost savings," Rainey says. "Right now, for the same cost, we can deliver a higher level of service, which is what I need to be doing, with the trend in government toward fewer employees doing more work."

Virtualization Eases the Job of Protecting Fish and Game in Alaska

Mobile access, security, ease of support and cost savings are some of the benefits garnered by the Department of Fish and Game.

The vastness of Alaska, which is bigger than Texas, California and Montana combined, is hard to imagine for those in the lower 48. With that much territory to cover, it's easy to understand why the Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees who protect the fish, game and aquatic plant resources for 3 million lakes and 6,600 miles of coastline are pretty happy now that they can access their virtual desktops from anywhere in the state.

So are the 13 IT staffers who support the 1,200 Fish and Game employees who work in nearly 40 offices and in the field. Not only is it easier to manage the thin-client infrastructure, but the department can also reallocate $250,000 that it would have spent on hardware in the next few budget cycles.

About one quarter of Fish and Game's users have moved to virtual desktops for everything from custom applications to Microsoft Office, according to Corey Kos, the department's former infrastructure manager and now the state's enterprise architect. As a result, biologists, for example, can now access real-time data from the field on whether hunting and fishing quotas have been met.

The department had already virtualized its servers using VMware in three data centers in Juno, Anchorage and Fairbanks, Kos says. "We'd gone from taking months to procure a server, to a matter of hours to spin up a new instance. So we said, 'This is cool. Let's look at the desktop.' " The department first tried VMware, but it ran into bandwidth issues and soon switched to Citrix running on Wyse terminals and Windows 7.

The main benefits, Kos says, are reduced IT workloads, faster and more efficient service, better remote computing, increased data security, and cost savings. With desktop PCs, for instance, the end of the fiscal year would mean literally hundreds of PC orders being delivered all at once in June and July, he says, as people used up the money in their budgets. "I remember walking into the office, and it looked like a PC warehouse, with PCs from floor to ceiling, including some from the previous year that hadn't been deployed," he says.

PC management tasks have diminished substantially. When Kos himself moved from Fish and Game to working for the state, for instance, it was just a matter of redirecting a new set of applications to his virtual desktop, instead of waiting the week it would have once taken to put in a help desk ticket and get new applications installed.

Given the number of field workers, and movement between the cities of Juno and Anchorage, more effective workforce mobilization was also important, Kos says. Not only were VPN service costs high, but responding to technology glitches was also labor-intensive, and with data copied onto laptops, sensitive information was sometimes at risk. With the new setup, however, "we retain control of the data, so we don't have those security concerns," Kos says. He sees the ability to work remotely growing more important over time; he is already able to restore a downed server from his iPhone while dining at a restaurant, for example.

The benefits of virtual desktops become more apparent over time, Kos says. Fish and Game employees have noted how much faster their applications run because they're not running over a network. For instance, a lab in Anchorage that does salmon DNA sequencing has seen processing times shrink from as long as five hours to three minutes. "They've become one of the biggest proponents of virtualization of the desktop," Kos says.

Costs are also lower, Kos believes. Not only does he no longer pay $100 per user per year for VPN access, but with thin clients and three-year Citrix licenses, it's the same average cost as for a standard desktop, and that doesn't include the soft costs of managing a PC, he says. Previously, Fish and Game was spending $600,000 annually on its desktops, and service costs were not easy to identify because they were buried in operational budgets. "As more people move to thin clients," Kos says, "those costs are bubbling up to the surface."

Brandel is a Computerworld contributing writer. Contact her at

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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