Department of Children and Families in Wisconsin - Unidesk Customer Profile

Unidesk enhances virtual desktop experience for staff of the Department of Families and Children in Wisconsin
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

An article by the well-known writer, William M. Bulkeley, offers an interesting view of how Unidesk's rendition of desktop virtualization has helped the Department of Children and Families in Wisconsin. Thanks for the submission, Bill.

Users started to complain after Wisconsin’s Department of Children & Families began installing virtual desktops last fall. Social workers, administrators and call-center employees alike were miffed because every time the IT managers updated software or installed patches, the users lost any short-cuts, desktop wallpaper or application icons they had added to customize their computers. To fix the problem, IT managers installed a new software solution called Unidesk that manages virtual desktops and preserves user applications and interface choices even when the back end is changed. Now with 350 virtual desktops installed, the department is confidently planning to add up to 600 more by July.

For the department, virtualization of desktops is necessary to hold down costs. But managing the desktop persona is key to keeping users happy. “Our job is to make it as easy as possible for them given the nature of the high-stress, often-disturbing work that they do,” says Maytee Aspuro, CIO and IT director for the Department. “If their desktop is personalized and that gives them a sense of comfort, we want to preserve it.”

After years of virtualizing servers and storage devices to simplify management and cut costs, IT departments have started to look for similar advantages by replacing individuals’ PCs with virtual desktop machines. Virtual desktops can let IT departments manage users’ machines centrally, limit rogue software and improve security. But users are likely to resist if they lose flexibility to personalize their desktops and arrange them to optimize their own efficiency.

The Wisconsin Department of Children & Families was formed in 2008 from parts of two other agencies to focus state resources on children. Employees do everything from inspecting day care centers and monitoring child support payments to determining that a child is no longer safe when living with a negligent or abusive parent.

As a new agency, the department needed to determine how to take over PC support from the IT departments of the two predecessor agencies. Last March, Ms. Aspuro got approval for the first stage: supporting some 300 workers in Milwaukee, the state’s largest city.

Virtualization was desirable for several reasons, says Christopher Luter, technical manager on the project. Many workers move around among three different locations during training and for other purposes. Giving them access to desktops at each location would be an alternative to equipping everyone with a laptop. It would also improve security. “We deal with a lot of incredibly sensitive data,” says Luter. “Virtualizing allowed us to centralize the risk by not having data on laptops.”

Moreover, IT managers calculated that supporting the 1,200 desktop devices they expect to manage eventually would take a streamlined staff of 12 people. By virtualizing the environment and managing it centrally without having to go to each PC for patches and updates, they could manage with just nine people, one for every 135 devices, saving an additional 25% of their labor costs.

Wisconsin chose to use VMware virtualization software, in part because IT employees were already familiar with it on servers. But after the department started rolling out virtual desktops with VMware View at the end of October, “it was clear there were user-happiness issues,” says Tim Curless, virtualization manager. He explains that, “in the early stages we needed to push changes out to desktops. Suddenly the wallpaper picture of their dog would be gone” because the screen view defaulted to the original appearance, or the Google Toolbar plug-in they added to their browser had vanished. Users resented having the virtualization project take away “their ownership of their desktop,” he says.

Coincidentally, Curless and some other IT personnel had gone to a VMware user group meeting a few months earlier, and heard a presentation by Unidesk about the benefits of a new management approach specifically for virtual desktops in which user customizations are saved in layers. “It was serendipitous,” he says. Unidesk is developed by Unidesk Corp., Marlborough, Mass.

They contacted Unidesk, which managed to quickly sign up a reseller that was authorized to handle state contracts. Ms. Aspuro says: “It was very heartening to have a vendor willing to work within the constructs of state government to get things done,” rather than trying to get the government to change its purchasing rules.

Curless says that within two weeks half a dozen IT employees were familiar enough with Unidesk to install it alongside VMware View. “Once you understood the concept, it was easy,” he says. Unidesk treats the virtualized desktop environment as a series of layers, so any patches or updates IT makes to the shared application and Windows layers don’t change what the users see in their personalization layers

The Department was cautious about desktop virtualization as it started. It bought full-fledged fat-client PCs from Lenovo, and ran the virtual desktops, with the knowledge that they could always use the traditional PCs if virtualization failed. Now, Ms. Aspuro says, they are confident about virtualization and have begun evaluating several thin-client solutions to roll out to the remaining employees. In the interest of speed, she says she allowed developers to skimp on documentation. Now, they are going back and fully documenting all procedures before putting virtual desktops based on Unidesk and VMware View everywhere.

Aspuro says that by permitting individualized desktops, Unidesk has helped preserve employee morale while saving the organization money. None of the workers are treated as second-class citizens with IT dictating a one-size-fits-all desktop. She says: “I think they all should have the same rights to a little personalization at their desktop.”

Editorial standards