What I've Learned About Desktop Virtualization

With applications running smoothly, the days of the fat old PC are gone

Two years ago, Kane Edupuganti came to Saint Vincent Catholic Medical Centers, a healthcare system that sprawls across New York City's five boroughs, to fix some woeful technology problems. As director of IT operations and communications, he's since revamped the system's wide area network infrastructure, virtualized the data center and is now rolling out virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). He's not one for pussyfooting around a project -- he's pushed server virtualization to the limit, for example, running roughly 50 to 60 virtual machines on one physical server. "Otherwise, you're right back where you started from," he says. With that aggressive approach to virtualization, he brought the number of physical boxes down from about 300 to five, and did so in 90 days. Now he's zeroed in on the desktop. In this interview with contributing writer Beth Schultz, he reflects on ...

WHY THE DESKTOP: Everywhere we turned, we saw a old six-year-old IBM desktop running Windows 2000 Professional with only 256MGs of RAM. It literally took those machines five to 10 minutes to boot up. It was a very painful experience for users. We had already virtualized the servers, so we figured the next logical step would be the endpoints.

WHY VIRTUAL DESKTOPS: Initially people were like, 'Yeah, whatever, virtual desktop, we can do this in Citrix or we can do this on terminal servers.' And for most part, I think you can. But with the price coming down and the back-end farms that serve these virtual machines being able to give high-availability scenarios even to desktops and being able to give a full-blown desktop experience to the users, the industry is turning around a bit. There are still shops that can get away with Citrix farms, but that can get fairly expensive with licensing.

ESTABLISHING A VDI USE CASE: We were running our WAN on Verizon's MPLS network and were having some latency issues, especially between the main hospital and data center. One of biggest problem areas was the Emergency Department. Because it has such a high number of patients coming in and out and the application was running so slow because of network latency, doctors and nurses weren't able to complete their patient charts. People had gotten so fed up that they even had stopped using the software and were manually filling out charts. If charts weren't done, we couldn't bill, which affected the revenue flow. We knew we had to address this, with its domino effect.

CITRIX TO THE RESCUE, OR NOT: We have a Citrix farm in our data center that users can access when they go home. So we started letting Emergency Department folks launch Citrix sessions for their primary chart application, and we found the performance improvement was like day and night. So we learned that even though there was latency between the hospital and the data center, we could work around it just by sending back and forth screen scrapes in the Citrix environment. That's how we got into this VDI idea. But a secondary application, also necessary for charts, wasn't supported in that environment. We had no choice but to start looking down the virtualization path not only for this purpose but also for power and management savings.

PICKING A 'ZERO CLIENT:' We started looking at Citrix and VMware, to see what they could do on the desktop side, and Wyse and Neoware for thin clients. As I was browsing the Web, I came across this silver cube [Pano Logic's Pano Device]. 'Hmm,' I thought. 'This is fairly shiny. What the heck is this?' So I started digging into it. I knew about thin clients, and none of them at this point were zero clients. All of them had some sort of proprietary operating system, processors or flash memory in them. No one truly had a zero footprint client. But then we looked at the Pano, and thought, 'Wow. This is incredible. There's no processing, no memory, nothing. It's so easy. Let's bring these guys in and see what we can do.'

MANAGEMENT PAIN POINT: We have 7,000 users and only seven desktop engineers, so 1,000 people per engineer that we support. That's a huge burden for us. If a desktop technician had to go to a PC that had a motherboard that's fried or a hard drive that's dead, that pretty much took four to six hours. He had to replace the part, build the PC, install the operating system on it, grab the data from the old PC and move it to the new PC. It was all very time-consuming.

POWERING DESKTOPS: We have 5,000 desks out there across our 42 sites. A regular fat PC sucks up anywhere between 150 to 160 watts of power. The zero-client device takes up only between three to five watts. Multiply that by 5,000 units, and that's a huge savings in power.

VDI ADVOCACY: We got our proof-of-concept (PoC) test up in about two hours and obviously the first department we rolled out the Panos as part of the PoC was Emergency. In a matter of a week, it had caught up on its 200 chart backlog and the doctors and nurses were able to close charts in a timely fashion. The Emergency Department became our marketing department within the organization for Panos.

APPLICATION COMPATIBILITY: We have about 600 Panos in production today, and we really haven't had any problems running any applications from our stable because that desktop truly is a full-blown Windows desktop. You don't have to reinvent the wheel. You don't have to figure out why this application is not working.

DOLLARS AND SENSE: Our old PCs were costing us anywhere from $1,000 to $1,200 to replace whereas a virtual machine with a Pano and the storage needed in the background and licensing and everything comes out to around $800 to $900 per device. So no matter how we looked at it, we were saving $100 to $300 on every PC from a capital perspective. We also are saving tremendously on power consumption, from 160W down to 5W. And we were saving tremendous manpower time on deploying a desktop. Before it would take us four hours to image a desktop, get all the data back on there and deploy to a user. Now we can deploy a virtual machine in VMware in 10 minutes, set up a Pano in 10 minutes and take an extra 10 minutes to make sure everything the user needs is on it. So we went from a four-hour timeframe to deploy a single user into production to 30 minutes.

DATA SAFETY: On a traditional PC, no matter how many times you tell a user, 'Hey, save all your data to your H drive because if it's business critical that's where it needs to be backed up,' there are always users that only save to the C drive. Data is spread out everywhere, no one has a handle on it, and you have to buy things like data loss protection products to monitor your data. That all goes away in virtual desktops. Even if a user is saving data on the desktop, guess what, that desktop is not out in the field. It's in our data center on VMware hosts so that a big for data security.

KEEPING TRAINING TO A MINIMUM: There shouldn't be a learning curve for users. Especially in the hospitals, people aren't that open to training. They've all got busy schedules, and everybody is running around like crazy. So we want to make virtual desktops function like people are used to with full PC. If something's wrong, they reboot the machine. So with this client, we want people to be able to hold down the Power button and have the virtual machine reset and come back up with a fresh login.

HEALTHCARE IT: My peers in healthcare have to start thinking outside the box so they save their organizations money so more money can be spent on patient healthcare. IT shouldn't be a thorn in the side.

THE FAT, TRADITIONAL PC: VDI is a proven technology that can help bring tremendous amounts of cost-savings. People need to do it. The days of the old, fat, traditional PC are gone.

What do you know now that you wish you'd known then? Share your tales here or contact Beth Schultz, at bschultz5824@gmail.com.

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