The latest BriefingsDirect end-user case study hones in on how higher education technology innovator Le Moyne College in upstate New York successfully embraced several levels of virtualization as a springboard to broad client-tier virtualization benefits.
Le Moyne worked with technology solutions provider Systems Management Planning Inc. to make the journey in a structured, predictive fashion to deep server virtualization -- and then on to virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).
The combined path to smooth VDI implementations at the server and desktop levels for Le Moyne came from teaming with a seasoned technology partner so the college community could quickly gain IT productivity payoffs via VDI, even amid the demanding environment and high expectations of an active higher education campus.
To learn more, BriefingsDirect assembled Shaun Black, IT Director at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York, and Dean Miller, Account Manager at Systems Management Planning, or SMP, also based in Rochester. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]
Here are some excerpts:
Gardner: Doing IT at a college comes with its own unique challenges. Why did you choose to go to VDI quickly?
Black: It all started for us back in the early 2000s, and was motivated by our management information systems program, our computer science-related programs, and their need for very specialized software.
A lot of that was started by using movable hard drives in very specific computing labs. As we progressed with them, and their needs continue to evolve, we just continued to find that the solutions that we had weren't flexible enough. They needed more and different servers in very specific needs.
There is tremendous diversity in the college and university environment. Our ability to be responsive as an IT organization is incredibly crucial, given the range of different clients, constituents, and stakeholders that we have. These include our students, faculty, administrators, fundraisers, and the like. There's a wide variety of needs that they have, not to mention the higher education expectations in a very much open environment.
Le Moyne is a private, Catholic, Jesuit institution located in Syracuse, New York. We have about 500 employees and we educate roughly 4,000 students on an annual basis. We're the second youngest of 28 Jesuit college universities nationally. Some of our better-known peers are Boston College, Gonzaga, and Georgetown, but we like to think that we're on an equal footing with our older and more esteemed colleagues.
We've been leveraging virtualization technology now for a number of years, going back to VMware Desktop, VMware Player, and the like. Then, in 2007 we embraced ESX Virtual Server Technology and, more recently, the VMware VDI to help us meet those flexibility needs and to make sure that the staff that we have are well aligned with the expectations of the college.
From an IT workforce perspective, we were having the same problem most organizations have. We were spending a tremendous amount of time keeping existing systems working. We were finding that we weren't able to be as responsive to the academic environments, and to some degree, were potentially becoming an impediment in moving forward the success of the organization.
Virtualization was a technology that was out there. How could we apply this to our server infrastructure, where we were spending close to six months a year having one of our people swapping out servers?
We saw tremendous benefits from that, increased flexibility and an increased ability for our staff to support the academic mission. Then, as we start looking in the last couple years, we saw similar demands on the desktop side with requirements for new software and discussions of new academic programs. We recognized that VDI technology was out there and was another opportunity for us to try to embrace the technology to help us propel forward.
Gardner: Tell me about how Systems Management Planning, or SMP, came into play and the relationship between you.
Black: Our relationship with SMP and the staff there has been critical from back in 2006-2007, when we began adopting server virtualization. With a new technology, you try to bring in a new environment. There are learning and assimilation curves. To get the value out of that, to get the bang for the buck as quickly as possible, we wanted to identify a partner to help us accelerate into leveraging that technology.
They helped us in 2007 in getting our environment up, which was originally intended to be an 18-month transition of server virtualization. After they helped us get the first few servers converted within a couple weeks, we converted the rest of our environment within about a two-month period, and we saw tremendous benefits in server virtualization.
Front of the list
When we started looking at VDI, we had a discussion with a number of different partners. SMP was always at the front of our list. When we got to them, they just reinforced why they were the right organization to move forward with.
They had a complete understanding of the impact of desktop virtualization and how it has an impact on the entire infrastructure of an environment, not just the desktop itself, but the server infrastructure, storage infrastructure, network infrastructure.
They were the only organization we talked to, from the start, that began with that kind of discussion of what the implications are from a technology perspective, but also understanding what the implications are, and why you want to do this from a business perspective, and particularly an education perspective.
They are already working with a number of different higher education institutions in the New York region. So they understood education. It's just a perfect partnership, and again, they brought very experienced people to help us through the process of assimilating and getting this technology implemented as quickly as possible and putting it to good use.
Gardner: How typical is Le Moyne's experience? Is this the usual path that you see in the market?
Miller: It is, and we like to see that path, because you don't want to disappoint your users with the virtual desktops. They just want to do their job and they don't want to be hung up with something that's slow. You want to make sure that you roll out your virtual desktops well, and you need the infrastructure behind that to support that.
So, yes, they started with a proof of concept which was a limited installation, really just within the IT department, to get their own IT people up to speed, experimenting with ThinApp and ThinApping applications. That went well. The next step was to go to the pilot, which was a limited roll out with some of the more savvy users. That seemed to go pretty well, and then, we went for a complete implementation.
It's fairly typical, and it was a pleasure working with this team. They recognized the value of VDI and they made it happen.
Focus on data center
At Systems Management Planning, we're a women-owned company, headquartered in Rochester, New York, and we were founded in 1997. Our focus is in the data center, implementing virtualization, both server and desktop virtualization, storage virtualization, and networking.
It's a technical organization. In fact, we have more engineers than salespeople on staff, which in my experience is pretty unusual. And we have more technical certification than any partner in upstate or western New York that I know of.
Our expertise in VMware and its complementing technologies allowed us to grow at a rate of about 30 percent year over year. We have offices in Rochester, Albany, and Orlando, Florida, and we use virtual desktops throughout our organization. This gives us the ability to spin up desktops or remote offices quickly. You could say we practice what we preach.
VMware has recognized SMP as a premier partner. We're also on the VMware technical advisory board and we're really proud of that fact. We work closely with VMware, and they bounce a lot of ideas and things off our engineering team. So, in a nutshell, that’s SMP.
Gardner: If you're going to do VDI, you’ve got to do it right. What did you do to make sure that that initial rollout was successful?
Black: We've been very methodical about going through an initial proof of concept, evaluating the technology, and working with SMP. They been great at informing us what some of the challenges might be, architecting an underlying infrastructure, the servers and the network.
Again, this is an area where SMP has informed us of the kinds of challenges that people have in virtual desktop environments, and how to build an environment that’s going to minimize the risk of the challenges, not the least of which are bandwidth and storage.
Then, we're being very deliberate about how we roll this out, and to whom, specifically so that we can try to catch some of these issues in a very methodical fashion and adjust what we're doing.
We specifically built the environment to try to build in an excess capacity of roughly a third to support business growth, as well as to support some variations in utilization and unexpected needs. You do everything you can in IT to anticipate what your customers are going to be doing, but we all know that on a day-to-day basis, things change, and those can have pretty dramatic consequences.
With regard to the members of the pilot team, I’ll give a lot of kudos and hats-off to them, because they suffered through a lot of the learning curve with us in figuring out what some of these challenges are. But that really helped us, as we got to what we consider the second phase of the pilot this past fall. We were actually using a production environment with a couple of our academic programs in a couple of classrooms. Then we began to go into full production in the spring with our first 150 production users.
Black: View 5.1 has recently been released. But at the time we rolled it out, vSphere, ThinApp, and View 5, were the latest-and-greatest with the latest service patches and all, when we initially implemented our infrastructure in December.
Gardner: What other metrics do you use to decide that this is a successful ongoing effort?
Black: There are a couple different ways that we like to measure. I’d like to think of it as both dollars and delight. From a server virtualization perspective, there's a dollar amount. We extended the lifecycle of our servers from a three-year cycle to five years. So we get some operational as well, as some capital cost savings, out of that extension.
Most significantly, going to the virtual technology on the servers, one motivator for us on the desktop was what our people are doing. So it's an opportunity-cost question and that probably, first and foremost, is the fundamental measure I'm using.
Internally, we're constantly looking at how much of our time are we spending on what we call "keep the lights on" activity, just the operations of keeping things running, versus how much time we're investing on strategic projects.
Free up resources
Second to that, are we not investing enough time such that strategic projects are being slowed down, because IT hasn’t been able to resource that properly. From the perspective of virtualization, it certainly allowed us to free resources and reallocate those to things that the colleges deem more appropriate, rather than the standard kind of operational activities.
Then, just in regard to the overall stability and functionality in an environment is what I think of as a delight factor, the number of issues and the types of outages that we've had as a result of virtualization technology, particularly on the server front. It's dramatically reduced the pain points, even from hardware failures, which are bound to happen. So generally, it increased overall satisfaction of our community with the technology.
So we're expecting that’s going to contribute to overall satisfaction on the part of both our students, as well as our faculty and our administrators, having the tools that they need to do their job in the databases and be able to take advantage of them.
Miller: Le Moyne College, specifically Shaun Black and his team, saw the value in virtualizing their desktops. They understood the savings in hardware cost, the energy cost, the administrative time, and benefits from their remote users. I think they got some very positive feedback from some of the remote users about View. They had a vision for the future of desktop computers, and they made it happen.
Gardner: In looking to the future, Shaun, is this setting you up for perhaps more ease in moving toward a variety of client endpoints? I'm thinking mobile devices.
Laying the foundation
Black: It lays the foundation for our ability to do that. That was certainly in our thinking in moving to virtual desktop. It wasn’t what we regard as a primary motivator. The primary motivator was how to do better what we’ve previously done, and that’s what we built the financial model on. We see that just as kind of an incremental benefit, and there may be some additional costs that come with that that have to be factored in.
But from the perspective of recognizing that our students, faculty, and everyone want to be able to use their own technology, and rather than having us issue them, be able to access the various software and tools more effectively and more efficiently.
It even opens up opportunities for new ways of offering our academic courses and the like. Whether it would be distance or the students working from home, those are things that are on our shortlist and our radar for opportunities that we can take advantage of because of the technology.
Another one of the areas that was in our thinking was the disaster recovery (DR) strategy. The idea, particularly for our mobile workers who have laptops, instead of them taking the data with them, to keep that data here on campus. We'll still provide them with the ability to readily access that and be just as effective and efficient as they currently are, but keeping the data within the confines of the campus community, and being able to make sure that’s backed up on a routine basis.
The security controls, better integration of View with our Windows server environment, and our authentication systems are all benefits that we certainly perceive as part of this initiative. It's not just a control perspective, but it's also being able to offer more flexibility to people, striking that balance better.
Miller: We’re seeing that in higher education as well as in Fortune 500s, even small and medium businesses (SMBs), the security factor of keeping all the data behind the firewall and in the data center, rather than on the notebooks out in the field, is a huge selling point for VDI and View specifically.
Gardner: Shaun, if you were to do this over again, or you wanted to provide some insights to somebody just beginning their virtualization journey, are there any thoughts, any 20/20 hindsight conclusions, that you would share with them?
Black: For an organization that’s our size, a medium business, I'd say to anybody to be looking very hard at this, and be looking at doing it sooner, rather than later. Obviously, every institution has its own specific situation, and there are upfront capital costs that have to be considered in moving forward this. But if you want to do it right and if you’re going to do that, you have to make some of the capital investment to make that happen.
Sooner rather than later
But, for anybody, sooner rather than later. Based on the data we've seen from VMware, we were in the front five percent of adopters. With VDI, I think we’re somewhere in maybe the front 15 or something like that.
So, we're a little behind where I’d like to be, but I think we’re really at the point where mainstream adoption is really picking up. Anyone who isn’t looking at this technology at this point is likely to find themselves at a competitive disadvantage by not realizing the efficiency that this technology can bring.
For us, it really gets down to, as I said earlier, opportunity cost in strategic alignment. If your staff are not focused, from an IT perspective, on helping your organization move forward, but just on keeping the existing equipment running, you’re not really contributing maximally, or as I would say, contributing maximally to move your organization forward.
So to the extent that you can re-allocate those resources toward strategic type initiatives by getting them off of things that can be done differently and therefore done more effectively, any organization welcomes that.
I've told many individuals on the campus, including my vice president, that I expect this to very likely be the last time that Le Moyne is required to make this kind of investment in capital infrastructure. The next time, in five years or whatever, the market will be matured enough that we could go to a desktop-as-a-service type environment and have the same level of flexibility and control.
So we can really focus on the end services that we’re trying to provide, the applications. We can focus on the implications for those, the academics, as opposed to the underlying technology and letting the organization have the time and the focus on the technology, maintaining that underlying infrastructure, take advantage of their competencies and allow us to focus on our core business.
We’re hoping that there's an evolution. Right now, we are talking with various organizations with regard to burst capacity, DR-type capabilities and also talking about our longer term desires to outsource even if some of the equipment is posted here, but ultimately, get most of the technology and underlying infrastructure in somebody else’s hands.
Gardner: Dean, what are some good concepts to keep in mind as you're beginning?
Miller: We began talking about virtual desktops, maybe two-and-a-half, three years ago. We started training on it, but it really hadn't taken off for the last year-and-a-half. Now, we’re seeing tremendous interest in it.
Initially, people were looking at savings for a hardware cost and administrative cost. A big driver today is bring your own device (BYOD). People are expecting to use their iPad, their tablet, or even their phone, and it's up to the IT department to deliver these applications to all these various devices. That’s been a huge driver for View and it's going to drive the View and virtual desktop market for quite a while.
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