Alabama College picks Unidesk to manage VDI complexity

Managing the complexity of virtual desktop infrastructure can be a major part of realizing any savings an organization might see. Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine selected tools from Unidesk. One of its staff explains why.
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor
I find it really useful to hear from people who have selected a product and are using it as part of their IT operations. These conversations often turn up information that is seldom part of a supplier's marketing messages. This time, Jonathan Hataway, infrastructure engineer at the Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine (ACOM), took the time to answer my questions about why his organization selected tools from Unidesk. Thanks, Jonathan.

ACOM saw VDI as a way to deliver applications and content to its students and faculty as well as a way to support BYOD activities and programs. VDI, however, imposes a great deal of complexity and the college looked for a way to manage all of the moving parts. It settled on Citrix XenDesktop as the VDI broker and management tools from Unidesk to deliver operating systems, applications and personalization to users.

Please introduce yourself and your organization

My name is Jonathan Hataway, and I'm an Infrastructure Engineer at Alabama College of Osteopathic Medicine (ACOM), based on Dothan, Alabama. We're proud to be the first osteopathic medical college in the state, opening our doors to our first students in August 2013. The college was started to address the shortage of primary care physicians in Alabama and to develop more of the state's own young people into practicing doctors. We're the academic division of the Houston County Health Care Authority and affiliated with Southeast Alabama Medical Center (SAMC) in Dothan, a 420-bed regional medical center. SAMC serves more than 600,000 residents in a 75-mile radius and has more than 2,500 employees and an active medical staff of 300.

What were you doing that needed this type of technology?

Our goal at ACOM is to educate and prepare our students for successful careers in osteopathic medicine. To do that, we need to offer the most innovative learning environment possible. We saw virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) as the opportunity to offer a more mobile, collaborative computing experience and a higher standard of learning compared to traditional PCs, and one that would support the growing BYOD trend, since many of our incoming students already have a mobile device of some kind. We also felt that VDI would reduce the time and effort our small IT staff would have to spend on desktop and application management.

What products did you consider before making a selection?

When you look at VDI, there are a lot of moving parts - storage, hosts, hypervisor, management tools, broker, end user devices. We looked at all of them. We use a lot of Dell infrastructure, so that was a pretty fast decision. We settled on Citrix XenDesktop as our broker because we felt HDX had the best protocol performance for our field users.

The real challenge was management. We looked at the separate provisioning, image management, app delivery, disk space reduction, and personalization tools that come with the brokers and found them too limiting and too complex. We looked at using application streaming to publish apps to our virtual desktops, but some of our apps didn't perform well with that method and the packaging process wasn't exactly easy. We looked at building apps into our Windows image, but we would need a lot of images to meet our users' diverse app requirements, and we didn't want to be patching Windows more than once.

We learned about Unidesk and its layering technology and that pretty much solved all of these issues.

Why did you select this product?

We needed to satisfy two fundamental requirements. The first was how to give our users a high performance virtual desktop experience that was as good if not better than a local PC, even when they were accessing their desktops from remote field locations. The second was how to make life easy for our IT staff so we could provision new desktops quickly, deliver apps and app updates quickly, and spend as little time as possible patching Windows and fixing broken desktops.

With only six IT people handling all infrastructure, applications, and support, we have to be as efficient as possible.

Citrix XenDesktop and NetScaler have really done the job when it comes to desktop connectivity and access. Our third- and fourth-year students are in the field instead of in classrooms, and many students and faculty want to work from home or wherever else is most convenient. XenDesktop with the HDX protocol and NetScaler for load balancing and application acceleration have delivered the performance we were hoping for from VDI. Even high-definition video is working well in the training labs.

On the management side, Unidesk has been our gift to ourselves in IT. Unidesk's whole layering approach to desktop management makes it easy to customize any of our 400+ persistent virtual desktops with any application we need.

We have one gold OS layer of Windows 7 that serves as the base layer for every desktop. Then we layer on our apps. We've packaged Adobe Pro, Visual Studio, Office 2013, Autodesk Viewer 2014, Ellucian PowerCampus, TurningPoint Student Clicker, Google Picasa, Avigilon Control Center, and many other apps as separate layers. Most took only a few minutes. Then we just select which app layers we want on each desktop. It's that easy.

Unlike traditional application virtualization, which isolates apps in their own protective bubbles, Unidesk's layered apps look as if they're locally installed. We don't have to worry about grouping them together or whether the apps will interoperate. We just drop them in a layer (virtual disk - VMDK in our VMware environment), assign as many layers as we need to each desktop, and let Unidesk merge all the layers together so Windows sees a unified C: drive. Once Unidesk has built or updated the desktops, it drops them into our XenDesktop catalogs so our users can access them.

What tangible benefits have you gotten through the use of this product?

Our end users tell us they love having 24x7 access to their Windows desktops and apps from any location and any BYOD device. We feel this gives us a competitive edge by helping us attract new students to the university. It also helps us pull in topnotch faculty and staff.

On the management side, everything is just a lot easier with Unidesk. Any of our IT staff, even those who aren't that technical, can fill in and manage our VDI environment with Unidesk. We're on our way to 700+ desktops, and it won't require any more effort than it's taking to manage our 400+ now. We only have one clean layer of Windows to patch. Any app can be packaged and delivered to any number of desktops in minutes. Application updates only have to be performed once. We can fix broken desktops with layer rollback.

Even storage is reduced by about 70 percent because the layers are shared across many desktops, so we get much greater density on our Dell EqualLogic arrays. The speed with which we can update and create new desktops blows our users away. Because IT is more efficient, we can spend our time on other things that benefit the college.

What advice would you offer others facing similar challenges?

Everyone thinks VDI is complex, takes a long time to rollout, and requires advanced skillsets to manage. And that you can't deliver a PC-like user experience if you have demanding application or video requirements. As we've proven here at ACOM, neither is true. You just need to pick the right technologies. Citrix XenDesktop and NetScaler on Dell infrastructure is delivering a great end user experience, which will be even better once we add NVIDIA GRID cards.

And if you're struggling with separate desktop provisioning, application virtualization, image management, personalization, disk space reduction, and desktop support tools -- stop. Just go get Unidesk. All of your management issues will be solved.

A bit about Unidesk

Unidesk believes that many of the management issues for Windows-based PCs can be addressed through the use of virtualization technology and the use of layering. In the company's words:

With a game-changing invention called "layering," Unidesk has transformed the management of Windows desktops in the cloud. By virtualizing everything above the hypervisor -- Windows OS, Applications, and User -- as shared, separately managed layers, we've made building, patching, and supporting virtual desktops unbelievably simple for IT, while maximizing flexibility and personalization for end users.

Snapshot analysis

If your organization is considering a desktop virtualization program to reduce the overall cost administrative and operational costs of Windows desktop and laptop systems, Unidesk's tools should be something you consider. The company's approach segments what's delivered to remote systems into an operating system and application layer, a user data layer and user preferences layer; this makes it possible to keep things simple for administrators and yet allow end users flexibility in how their systems are set up.

Unidesk isn't the only company to offer similar levels of flexibility. AppSense, Citrix and Moka5, for example, also make it possible to separate delivery and management of common system tools and applications from user personalization and user data.

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