Amerisure ditches its PCs, goes all virtual

Jack Wilson is a happy man, and he owes it all to desktop virtualization.

As the enterprise architect at Amerisure, an insurance company in Farmington Hills, Mich., Wilson spearheaded a project to replace every physical PC and laptop with thin client alternatives to reduce cost and increase efficiency. After more than three decades in IT, Wilson says virtualizing desktops was the best move he ever made.

"I've had a lot of good ideas, but none of them worked out as well as I thought," Wilson says. "What I did in desktop virtualization was the one thing in 30-plus years that exceeded my expectations."

As Windows 7 gains steam, VDI set to rise

Wilson started overhauling his desktop infrastructure four years ago, long before the current wave of hype around the technology began. Unlike most early virtual desktop initiatives, Amerisure virtualized throughout the company, replacing all employee machines, rather than just targeting a few departments or remote sites.

"We completely virtualized all of our desktops," Wilson says. "We don't have any PCs in the company. Every other company I've talked to has approached it from a tactical basis. I have found no other company that decided to do it strategically."

Wilson's experience with virtualization almost sounds too good to be true. Desktop virtualization, in fact, is the subject of considerable debate in the industry, with questions surrounding ROI claims from vendors, the performance of virtualized client devices, limitations in offline access, and the impact on storage. (See related story: "5 virtual desktop pitfalls")

But desktop virtualization has undoubtedly helped some businesses save money while gaining other benefits, and Amerisure is one of them. At its heart, the Amerisure project uses a technology that wasn't even described as desktop virtualization four years ago, that being Citrix's Presentation Server, which delivers applications from the data center to users.

Since Wilson began using the Presentation Server, it has been rebranded as XenApp, and is now included as part of Citrix's XenDesktop virtual desktop software.

XenApp is similar to the virtual desktop infrastructure (VD) model, as both deliver desktops and applications from servers in the data center to employees on thin clients and PCs.

But Wilson says he prefers the XenApp model, sometimes known as application virtualization, over VDI because XenApp requires less storage and runs with Windows Terminal Services, which is less expensive than having to buy full Windows operating system licenses for each user. XenApp also allowed consolidation onto fewer physical servers than a VDI model, he says.

With the emergence of various technologies that change the way OS images and apps are delivered to users, and allow desktops to be accessed from multiple devices, the definitions of different types of desktop and application virtualization are shifting.

"I'm of the opinion that we're going to remove the word 'virtual' from desktops altogether," says Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf. "Some form of virtualization is going to be implied in the delivery. We'll get to a point where you don't say the desktop is virtualized -- it's just implied."

Wilson got rid of all 800 Amerisure PCs within a year of starting the project, replacing them with thin clients from Wyse and HP that cost about $225 each and use a fraction of the power required by typical PCs. Amerisure now has about 1,000 desktop thin clients, mostly from Wyse, including ones for conference rooms and other shared spaces. The company also has 120 laptop thin clients, mostly from HP.

In the data center, Wilson has 60 Dell servers running 260 VMware-based virtual machines, to host Microsoft Office, insurance claims apps and the other tools needed to make Amerisure's business run. The user interface seen by Amerisure employees looks just like Windows XP, Wilson says.

Amerisure's nine remote locations now contain minimal amounts of IT infrastructure, mainly just "routers and thin clients," Wilson says. While desktop virtualization limits offline access for users, that usually isn't a problem at Amerisure, Wilson says, because the company guarantees redundancy with T1 lines, cable Internet and wireless access.

While analysts such as Wolf say the ROI case for desktop virtualization is still unproven, Wilson says he expects to save millions of dollars over the lifetime of his project. Amerisure spent $1.9 million buying Citrix servers, various licenses, thin clients and other upfront costs at the beginning of the project, but would have spent a similar amount of money had it undergone a regular PC refresh cycle, according to Wilson.

Three years later, in 2009, Amerisure would have been scheduled for another PC refresh had the company not embraced virtualization. But "there was nothing to refresh on those thin clients," Wilson says. "I saved the company almost $2 million by skipping the PC refresh and I believe I will be able to skip the refresh in 2012 also. Beyond that, I just don't know."

More savings have come from eliminating third-party IT support at remote locations, downsizing the help desk, consolidating servers with the VMware hypervisor, lowering electricity costs, and other efficiencies created by virtualization.

"By getting rid of PCs we got rid of a nightmare of maintenance, security issues and viruses. I went from a six-person help desk to a one-person help desk," Wilson says.

Virtual desktop deployments have to factor in the user experience, of course. Some employees didn't enjoy losing their local C drives, where people tend to store personal files.

"They didn't like the fact they were getting a thin client," Wilson says. "We're not letting them have pictures of their dogs or from vacation. We had to literally change the mindset of the company from it being your personal computer to it being a business device."

But management and rank-and-file employees alike were ultimately swayed by the promise of a more stable client infrastructure, and desktops that can be easily moved to another machine in case one fails.

"Once they got it, they never complained about it," he says. "They don't understand they're working off a Citrix application. They think they're working off a regular PC."

When users are in a company office, they connect to the WAN or LAN. Outside the office, or on home computers, they get their desktop and applications through a Web browser.

Wilson acknowledges that virtual desktops wouldn't be right for every user. Developers at gaming companies, whose applications require screens to be constantly refreshed, might be stymied by latency. But "If you're a normal company that's running transaction processing, there's just no reason not to go this route," Wilson says. "When I meet with people and tell them what we did and how we did it, they ask me 'why isn't everybody doing this?'"

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This story, "Amerisure ditches its PCs, goes all virtual" was originally published by Network World.

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