Council rolls out 200 virtual desktops

The City of Cockburn appears to be the first Australian government organisation to undertake a roll-out of virtualised desktops across a whole organisation.

case study The City of Cockburn appears to be the first Australian government organisation to undertake a roll-out of virtualised desktops across a whole organisation.

It recently replaced 200 desktop PCs with 200 VMware View 4.0 desktops and end-client machines spanning 15 different sites across the City of Cockburn — libraries, community centres and offices.

City of Cockburn's Jeff Jones, manager of information services, and Justin Rowling, information technology coordinator, had several reasons for the major IT system overhaul.

"For the last three years our satisfaction survey between IT and the rest of the out-stations has been pretty poor," said Jones. "So we were trying to look at something that would enable us to manage these people as if they were in this building and get the same type of support."

He added that having a virtual desktop meant that the support teams didn't have to go on-site to provide support tasks. "One of the other keys in actually pursuing it was that the PC over IP technology actually enabled us to provide a desktop experience equivalent to a PC," said Rowling.

The City of Cockburn's IT crowd had originally intended on installing more PCs across the city; virtualisation wasn't at the top of their minds.

It wasn't until Rowling attended VMware's Virtualisation Forum in October last year that he knew for sure what the solution would be.

"We weren't 100 per cent that we were going to go down that path and [Justin] went to the conference in Sydney and came back with a bit of belief."

The team did research and consider other commercial solutions like Citrix's Virtual Desktop products, but ended up deciding that they weren't confident it would be able to deliver the same performance as VMware. What about open source solutions? Well, they were considered too, but the manpower required was deemed too involved.

"Open source is great, except the expense involved with it is always the labour internally. So we didn't really entertain the idea of going down an open-source path," Rowling said.

So how did the virtual desktop fare when it came down to the piggy bank?

"We paid about 10 per cent more budget-wise than we would've had to do with a roll-out of PCs," said Jones. "That was upfront and not a total cost of life, so if we can keep these PCs for five years then there is a 25 per cent saving there."

Rowling had a team of three working with him during the project and, as part of its contract, a VMware technical account manager had helped and offered expertise. Going forward, maintenance and technical support on the 200 virtual desktops and servers will be carried out by Rowling and his team of three, along with a VMware specialist to provide direction and assistance when required.

Planning of the overhaul started in November just after Rowling attended the conference and roll-outs began in February this year. "We don't like to dawdle," said Rowling.

The company also had to complete the implementation before its fleet of Dell PCs were due to return to the manufacturer as per a leasing arrangement.

"We had two options: do it in three months or plan it in 27 months. We took the risk and there are a few failures in there and a few learnings, but it has been positive," Jones added.

Some hiccups were encountered along the way — ranging from employee irritation to storage horrors and communication issues. However, it wasn't a horror story — the issues did not cripple the project and a lot of lessons were learned.

"We needed to evaluate our storage requirements probably prior to embarking the project," explained Rowling. "[Because] we completely overlooked what implications the virtual desktop environment was going to have on our storage that we are running our virtual machines on. We also needed to consult with our end users more to find out all the little applications they had been running because they had free reign on their PCs."

"It was kind of a double-edged sword — we achieved something that gave us far greater control, but at the same time we probably had to communicate more beforehand that we were going to take that control. We ended up with some upset end users basically because they could no longer run their not-necessarily-legitimate software that they had been running."

"From my perspective as the manager of the department I think it has been successful," said Jones. "We can see that we are delivering the same experience that they were experiencing from a PC that they had previously. So from my perspective they are no worse off than they were before, but there are so many advantages of having a virtual desktop environment — I don't think the end users yet realise the benefits."

The team had found that a communications infrastructure had to be built at one of the sites of the project in order to meet demands.

"We also had problems with some of our communication links back to the building and the offices," said Jones, "so we had to put in infrastructure in place and you can't get infrastructure done overnight. So you know, if you want to get a new Telstra connection you have to wait up to 10 weeks or something like that, so people did suffer at the desktop while that infrastructure was put in place."

The communication infrastructure installation had caused that one segment of the roll-out to be held back until next month.

"One of the sites is still going and won't get done until 5 July." Jones gave praise to the people who were put out by the delay, which amounted to 15 per cent or 30 of the 200 desktops affected.

There hadn't been any concerns or queries raised by the office workers in regards to security. Jones and Rowling reported that employees did not fret that their data, secured or otherwise, would be saved offsite. "Users aren't really aware of what they saved is saved locally ... I don't think what we have changed has changed their thought process on the privacy issue," said Jones. "Most people don't think about privacy from that perspective unless it's private information, which is secured by passwords and log-ons in our system."

There have been many positive outcomes from the project — some of which are yet to be fully realised by the end users. "It's certainly much easier to manage 200 virtual desktops that it is to manage 200 PC computers. From the desktop support point of view and the inventory management, and all that sort of thing, it's just much easier with this solution in place," explained Jones.

"Ease of management, looking at being able to rapidly update hundreds of desktops from a central location," added Rowling. The staff can also get to their exact desktops from home.

"From a hardware point of view, because you no longer have a smart PC on the desktop, you're looking at thin clients that have a greater life span," he added. "You can increase the working life of your hardware, which can reduce your cost. We have also been able to reduce our power consumption by having less devices on the desktop, so there's been a green benefit there as well."

It has also been easier to provide users with basic support because there is less that breaks on the desktop.

"Support is less technical these days and it's just based around educating the user in their applications," said Jones, "they actually get better productivity ... so I see great benefit in that."

The contract with VMware is for three years, but looking forward another few years the pair are unsure of what is in store for them — it's difficult to predict what path technology will take. "If you had asked me two years ago I didn't know anything about VMware desktops," said Jones. "The thing is, technology changes."

Jones concluded by talking about implementing a new product within a short time frame and what that meant for the parties involved. "At the time, VMware 4 was very new and PC over IP was very new," he said. "And I actually think that VMware didn't have a total handle on all the issues we could have faced as well. I think it has been a learning curve for both parties.

"We could have waited two years and done it much well planned and probably be more successful but we would've lost the two years. We took a risk and I'm happy with risk. It's been positive for us. Not everything has gone 100 per cent smoothly, but overall it's been a positive move and I think we will reap the benefits in the upcoming 18 months."