Virtual desktops cut costs at Denver transportation agency

When your IT staff numbers only five people, an opportunity to reduce costs and make it easier to manage your desktop infrastructure is nothing to scoff at.

That's the conclusion Trent Ratcliff of the Regional Transportation District (RTD) in the Denver area came to when reviewing the potential of thin clients and desktop virtualization. Since the summer of 2007, Ratcliff and his team have been replacing desktops with Wyse thin clients, and using VMware virtualization technology to deliver standardized desktop images.

When the RTD used traditional PCs only, each one would be replaced after three years as part of an upgrade cycle that was expensive and time-consuming. Ratcliff, the IT infrastructure manager, says he has just five people in his group including his supervisor, and the regular replacement of desktops monopolized the time of two employees for months at a stretch.

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"That was where I started – I can't get any more head count, so what can I do to work smarter?" Ratcliff says.

The RTD is a public transportation system that serves seven counties in Colorado. Before starting the virtualization rollout, the agency had 1,200 or so desktops, plus 200 laptops and 150 high-end workstations. So far, RTD has replaced 400 of the desktops with thin clients, and is hoping to get that number up to 800 by year-end. The remaining desktops are relatively new and won't be replaced until 2010 or 2011, while several considerations are preventing virtualization of laptops and high-end workstations.

RTD is using Wyse V10L thin clients, with a Wyse thin operating system and the VMware View virtual desktop infrastructure software. Using VMware was a natural decision since Ratcliff was already using the vendor's ESX hypervisor to virtualize more than 90% of his servers.

RTD is delivering Windows desktop images from four storage-area network-connected IBM System x3850 servers, with 10 1 Gigabit Ethernet network interface cards in each machine. VMware View lets Ratcliff deliver hundreds of desktops from the servers by cloning a few base images. Each image is about 15GB, but storage needs are minimized because RTD just needs to save the base image one time, with extra storage needed only for the incremental changes applied to each desktop.

While virtualization can provide multiple operating systems and images for each machine, RTD is so far sending one image to each user. Common applications include Microsoft Office, Oracle ERP and Adobe Photoshop.

Ratcliff convinced his agency to undertake the project based on cost and environmental benefits. Instead of paying $950 for a PC that would last three years, RTD could acquire a Wyse thin client that would last eight or 10 years, at a cost of $800 ($300 for the Wyse thin client itself plus another $500 in Windows, VMware and other software fees). Including $53,000 in predicted energy savings each year, Ratcliff anticipates a $619,000 ROI after eight years.

Management time was also cut down dramatically for deploying new desktops, and fixing problematic ones. But that's not to say there were no challenges. Several nagging problems were unresolved until VMware released the third version of VMware View in December 2008, according to Ratcliff.

"2007 and early 2008 was a very rough period," he says. "The technology was bleeding edge in my opinion, at that time, and really only became leading edge when View 3 came out."

Two years ago, building an RTD user a new virtual desktop could take six hours, whereas now it takes about 60 minutes. Before the VMware View upgrades, Ratcliff says users were constantly reporting that their computers stopped working, requiring hours of IT time to identify and fix a problem. Today, Ratcliff is dealing with one persistent issue that has users getting locked out of their own computers, but it is infrequent and affecting only a few employees.

Until View 3, "we were working with VMware and Wyse on a consistent basis, finding issues. They seemed to be one step ahead of us because they always had a patch."

Despite long-term savings, Ratcliff says budget constraints have prevented him from rolling out virtual desktops as fast as he'd like. With 400 deployed already, Ratcliff says he "would do the next 400 immediately" if budget concerns weren't preventing him from hiring contractors. "The hope is by the end of 2009 we'll have 800 thin clients in the district, and that is 65% of our desktop infrastructure," he says.

Ratcliff hasn't applied virtualization to RTD's laptops, partly because so many resources are being poured into the desktop project, and because many laptop users need to maintain their current level of mobility. Ratcliff talks about virtualizing his agency's 200 high-end workstations as well, but he says current virtualization technology isn't ready to handle the graphics and processing needs on those computers.

But the cost and management benefits of replacing traditional PCs with virtualized thin clients have made the project more than worth it, he says. In addition to reducing the time it takes to deploy new computers or replace failed ones, "we have eliminated the costly expense of replacing PC's every three years … and eliminated that end user disruption," Ratcliff says.

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This story, "Virtual desktops cut costs at Denver transportation agency" was originally published by Network World.

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