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Suncorp touts virtual desktop cost savings

Suncorp is currently running three versions of virtual desktop for 2000 of its employees and hopes to roll out virtual desktops to 7000 users by the end of this financial year.
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Written by Suzanne Tindal, News Editor on

Suncorp is currently running three versions of virtual desktop for 2000 of its employees and hopes to roll out virtual desktops to 7000 users by the end of this financial year.

As the floods threatened Brisbane in January 2011, Suncorp was faced with the prospect of sending 5000 staff home. This was also a time when hundreds of staff were travelling around the countryside to look at claims.

"We started thinking about how do you offer a true desktop experience regardless of where you go," Suncorp general manager enterprise engineers, business technology, Terry Powell, said yesterday at Gartner's Infrastructure, Operations & Data Center Summit 2012 in Sydney's Hilton hotel.

Employees were changing work habits, he said, with 30 per cent of employees using remote desktop protocols to access their work PCs from home. Suncorp also has a "smart environments" program where the company provides eight desks for 10 employees, which relies heavily on virtual desktop technology to run.

With its four-year-old desktop fleet, Suncorp was facing an expensive 20,000-unit replacement looming in the future. At the same time, a move to Windows 7 had stalled as business units pulled out because the roll-out "wasn't going anywhere".

In February 2011, Suncorp representatives went to the US to meet partners and develop what would become the company's virtual desktop. The actual project began a month later, with a tactical solution ready to implement in Sydney for 500 employees moving from a Chatswood office into the Sydney CBD. After user profiling and developing a strategic solution, the company began to move more employees onto the virtual desktop to the point where there are 2000 users running it today.

Key to the speed of the roll-out has been a decision not to wait for the perfect product and conducting endless sociability testing, Powell said.

"We didn't do a lot of traditional desktop roll-out things," he said. "We accepted a fair bit of risks."

The idea was that if there was a problem on implementation day, IT would fix it. Nine times out of 10 that had been a good process, he said.

"We didn't want to take two years to build a carrier-grade desktop and then start rolling it out."

The team had a number of requirements for the desktop, it had to be: a full desktop experience, including things like video and Facebook; cheaper; consistent wherever the user was; able to be personalised so that users could take their own desktop settings with them; and able to be used across the whole organisation.

Although Powell said that he would have liked to have had one virtual desktop type to use across the organisation, he realised that wasn't going to be feasible, so the company ended up with three flavours of virtual desktop.

The first — the standard desktop — services around 80 per cent of the organisation. It's great for task-based workers who spend a lot of time on email and don't need processing power. Suncorp was managing 150 users per blade, which was about where Powell said it needed to be to be cost effective.

Professional was the second option, to be provided to 15 per cent of the organisation. It's a 32-bit operating system, while the other two options are 64-bit, which is meant for those users with applications that don't work on 32-bit operating systems.

"If we can't get you to work on standard, the fallback is to get you on professional," Powell said.

Suncorp is managing to get 70 users per blade for professional. Powell said that this needed to rise to 90 for it to be cost effective. He was confident this was achievable.

The third desktop virtualisation type was for developers, which consisted of around 5 per cent of the organisation. Instead of having powerful machines on their desktops, the developers can now provision servers on the Suncorp cloud, Powell said, a critical feature to get the developers onto the roll-out. Suncorp was getting 20 developer desktops onto a blade, he said, which he hoped to get to 40 with Microsoft's help.

Powell said that Suncorp was able to provide these three desktop types for $1200, $1700 and $2700, respectively, which he compared to Gartner statistics that said physical desktops cost $2500 if well run and $4500 if poorly run. Laptops would cost $10,000, he said. Suncorp had taken money for the roll-out from its desktop refresh budget.

The virtual desktop was created using Citrix XenDesktop, Citrix XenApp, the VMware Hypervisor and NetApp storage.

Challenges had been getting internet protocol telephony and video right, working out WAN optimisation, enabling printing and negotiating for per user licensing instead of per device licensing, according to Powell.

"If you can't get to that sort of licensing model, it's cost prohibitive," he said.

As for offline use, Powell said that the company was looking into a check-in, check-out model. However, he said that he was encouraging users to give their laptops up.

"If you're doing email on the train I'll give you an iPad," he said, adding that many users were responding to that call.

The company was also interested in implementing Google Chromebooks. "We're getting delivery of one next week," he said. "We're of the firm belief that your desktop is just going to become your browser."

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