Case study: Retail chain eases IT manpower with desktop virtualization

Malaysia's supermart giant Mydin reduces the time needed to roll out new software patches from 120 man-hours to just 15 minutes, and minimizes maintenance with thin-client devices that use few mechanical parts.
Written by Eileen Yu, Senior Contributing Editor

When it decided to deploy desktop virtualization, retail giant Mydin had the usual concerns associated with bandwidth and user resistance. So it focused much of its efforts on assuring employees about the benefits, and is now reaping the rewards from better utilization of its IT resources. 

Virtualizing the Enterprise: An overview

 The Malaysia-based supermarket chain chalked up 2.1 billion ringgit (US$650.16 million) in revenue last year and is targeting to hit 2.5 billion ringgit (US$774 million) this year. It manages more than 200,000 items daily, and is looking to open another three new hypermarkets over the next two years in Sarawak and Kuching. 

The company has been in expansion mode over the last seven years, according to Malik Murad Ali, Mydin's IT director. In fact, when he first joined the organization in 2001 Mydin operated just seven stores with one 'store format'. Today, the company runs 183 outlets across Malaysia spanning six different store formats, including hypermarts, minimarts, convenient stores, and an emporium.

The company currently has 10,500 employees and is headquartered in Subang Jaya, Selangor.

With its rapid growth, Mydin recognized the need to build a robust IT architecture to support better delivery of products and services, Malik said. It then looked at improving its server utilization and enhance application performance.

In 2003, it implemented application virtualization using Citrix ZenApp, running all of its software from the central server farm. In 2009, its virtualization deployment was extended to all its servers, with Citrix XenServer.

Two years later, it deployed desktop virtualization with XenDesktop, converting the company's branch PCs into some 900 thin-client devices from Hewlett-Packard. The implementation included Citrix's Branch Repeater tool, designed to slash bandwidth consumption so application delivery and performance can be enhanced.

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"With thin clients, you save money from lower power usage and minimum management because these devices use few mechanical parts."

— Malik Murad Ali, Mydin's IT director

What: Malaysian retail chain virtualized its server, application, and desktop environments with Citrix XenServer, XenApp, and XenDesktop

Key business benefits:
• reduced time to roll out new software patch from over 120 man-hours to 15 minutes
• lower device maintenance since thin clients use few mechanical parts
• better bandwidth utilization
• new application functions can be rolled out from one centralized network, saving manpower
• better server utilization

While the thin clients cost about the same as a traditional fat-client systems, Malik said the overall cost of maintaining user devices was lower. 

"There are a lot of mechanical parts in a traditional desktop computer, which tend to fail quite often," he explained. "With thin clients, you save money from lower power usage and minimum management because these devices use few mechanical parts. There are no fans, no hard disk drive, so there's less chance of technical problems."

He also noted bandwidth utilization was more efficient in an environment that was fully thin client and fully virtualized, compared to a fat-client environment, because users would not need to download 1MB of data just to read their email, for instance. Instead, they would only need to download an image of that document, he said. 

The company still distributes fat clients to select user groups which may require richer desktop environment, he noted.  

Today, Malik's team is responsible for managing 183 local area networks — one for each store — which each supports various systems including point-of-sale, thin clients, and data backup. Applications are virtualized from the company's data center in Subang Jaya, and the centralized network supports over 3,000 user IDs.

Bigger store outlets have one to two servers, while smaller ones operate on virtual machines. In total, the IT team maintains some 300 physical and virtual servers, he said. He added that with server virtualization, Mydin no longer needed to buy new servers each time it opened a new store.

In addition, server utilization at the various outlets was typically low, he said, noting that virtualization helped ensure this was optimized. 

With virtualization, Mydin also reduced the amount of time needed to roll out a new software patch across 3,000 user devices, from over 120 man-hours previously to just 15 minutes today. 

Malik said: "In fat-client environment, we had to install applications on every PC. And if you need to upgrade the software, you have to upgrade the PC one by one and need to physically go on-site to do so."

"Since we virtualized, we only need to upgrade on one location via the central network. We don't need to run around to 3,000 PCs to do the job since all our applications now run off the server. So for instance, if we roll out a new function, the user doesn't need to do anything expect to log into the network to access the function," said Malik. 

Connectivity, single failure point, user acceptance key concerns

Malik did have some key concerns before eventually deciding to extend the company's deployment of virtualization into the desktop space. He pointed to connectivity, central point of failure, and user acceptance.

Reliable bandwidth and low latency were essential to ensure the user experience was not compromised, he said, noting that the company previously had basic 'best-effort' bandwidth service. This created network latency issues so it upgraded to a leased line and signed up for a higher service package, he said.

This meant more cost for Mydin, but the network then could support more functions with the better bandwidth such as CCTV and music streaming for its retail outlets, Malik explained. "It was a good investment because if you have a good network, you can do a lot more with it," he added.


There were also concerns that employees might not be receptive to the idea of performing their work tasks on thin-client devices, especially since most were familiar with operating workstations packed with computing power.

Malik had to assure staff that the user interface they had become accustomed to would remain essentially the same, and they would be able to choose the version of Windows they preferred with the desktop virtualization tool.

Briefings and workshops were held, and peer-to-peer support was provided to help employees with the transition, he added.

The IT director further worked to ensure applications and servers were properly managed, since a centralized network system meant there potentially would be a single point of failure.

A consulting firm was brought in to establish a set of best practices. A change in user mindset was also necessary.

"If I know I'm going to be offline, for instance, if I'm boarding a plane or heading somewhere with no web access, I'll make sure I cache the data I want so I can work on it offline," Malik said. "It's a change in the way we work, and if employees understand how to work with it, there are many benefits."

He advised companies looking to adopt desktop virtualization to always look at their implementation from the user experience. 

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