Virtual desktop technology has been around for years and has been implemented with varying degrees of success by governments of all sizes. But how should IT officials decide whether a move to virtualized desktops is the right choice? Officials in Pasadena, Calif., hope they have the answer in a deeper look at computer usage patterns among city employees.
During a 2010 assessment of 1,300 desktop computers, the city tracked what applications people were using, how intense interaction with a computer was, USB device usage and other data. Now when Pasadena’s virtual desktop environment goes live in January 2012, city employees will be assigned to profile groups ranging from “light users” to “heavy users,” which users say will improve the efficiency of computing power and resources.
A successful pilot program was conducted from Nov. 2010 through Feb. 2011 involving 70 users in Pasadena. The city’s IT staff then set the wheels in motion to fully develop the system. While not every city employee will be moved to a virtual desktop environment next year, it will ultimately be the preferred method of computing for Pasadena workers moving forward.
“In January, we expect to have our virtual desktop infrastructure up and running, so that will become the standard when computers need to be upgraded or people need new computing capabilities of some sort,” said Phillip Leclair, deputy CIO of Pasadena. A physical computer will only be granted to employees by exception.
The move stems from Pasadena’s successful move to virtualized services in Dec. 2009 and its need to replace a majority of its personal desktop computers in order to upgrade to the Windows 7 operating system. The city plans to send out a request for proposal in mid-August for the equipment, software and support needed to build a 1,300-user virtual desktop environment.
How Virtualization Works
Instead of an individual computer taking up space on a desk or on the floor, the user of a virtual desktop has his or her entire operating system and personalized settings on a remote server. The user goes to a terminal, logs in, and their entire desktop and programs are available for use.
The terminal is a person’s workstation: a monitor, keyboard and mouse are still present, but a thin client — a device approximately the size of a router — sits in place of the actual computer. That client ties the user’s interface into the mainframe.
Computing power from a mainframe was limited in the past, so older “dumb terminal” systems people may remember don’t give an accurate description of what exists now, Leclair said. All of a user’s popular programs — Web browsers, e-mail clients, business applications, design software, etc. — can be brought online quickly, in roughly the same time or faster than a desktop PC, thanks in large part to the beefed-up power of today’s servers.
According to Leclair, profile groups will be created for city government users based on the intensity of their program usage. So a person that is heavy into graphic development may be assigned a “heavy user” profile, whereas a front desk associate may be given a “light user” profile that would have a more basic slate of programs accessible.
“They will probably get more performance then they would if they had [a program] on their own desktop in their own office,” Leclair said. “We have a lot more flexibility on how much power we are delivering to each user depending on what they need.”
Pasadena didn’t have a desktop computer replacement program in place when it was discussing how to migrate to Windows 7. So after pricing out the cost of new computer hardware, their usable life cycles and the overall cost of implementing a desktop PC replacement program, city officials saw a number of cost saving benefits in going virtual.
“We built a financial model around the implementation and the ongoing support of [a virtual desktop environment] and we believe that there will be a tremendous amount of savings in our operations and support,” Leclair said.
Leclair said that to replace 1,000 computers, it would cost roughly $800,000 and those machines would have a lifespan of approximately four to five years. But using a virtual desktop environment means older computers can be used as thin clients — and even if thin clients need to be purchased, they are a fraction of the cost of a new computer and are projected to last almost twice as long.
The biggest savings, however, will be the personnel time spent to update each individual computer in the city. Instead of dispatching IT staff to do individual upgrades and patches to various machines throughout every city department, a virtual desktop environment allows the updates to be done once to the system. This way every user has the change the next time they access their profile.
“We are now going to be doing only the one installation and then it is complete, versus having to manage multiple computers,” Leclair explained. “So we see it from IT as a very big maintenance cost reduction.”
Leclair revealed the transition to a virtual desktop environment will cost Pasadena roughly $750,000 upfront, which includes setting up the system and various incremental improvements to network and storage areas. He stressed that a virtual desktop is heavily reliant upon the network, data center and storage, so other cities need to keep that in mind if considering a similar change.
While the pilot program was deemed a success, Leclair admitted there were some challenges. Because Pasadena was operating on Windows XP, but the virtual desktop environment that was tested ran Windows 7, there were some compatibility issues.
The other issue was some difficulties with personalization of the employee’s desktop. Leclair said that things like wallpaper or favorites in a Web browser were wiped out a few times during the pilot when a person logged back in to the system.
“There are occasions where I will log out and log back in and it doesn’t remember,” Leclair said. “The one that happens to me is default printers. The system has a group default printer, but for me in my workspace I have a local printer that is installed [and] connected to my thin client, and I am unable to set that as my default.”
Leclair said that there are tools available that address some of these issues and Pasadena will iron out any of those difficulties before the virtual desktop goes live next year.
“Personalization is an area that needs some investment, which we are planning for in our main project,” Leclair said. “That will help manage the look and feel for every single user exactly the way they want to interact with their desktop.”
When asked if there were complains from any of the pilot project users, Leclair said the reception has been overwhelmingly positive. He recalled that users who previously had five-year-old computers were given the virtual environment to work from, and instead of it taking two minutes to boot up, they had Windows 7 with all their applications ready in lightning speed, because it all runs straight from the data center.
He added that the primary critics of the city’s desktop virtualization plans have been those who haven’t yet used the system or users who don’t like the idea of losing control over what programs they may have access to.
“A lot of those people don’t really know very much about the technology, but we have plans within the next six months to really market it and talk about the benefits of what they are all getting,” Leclair said. “If we continue to expand our little environment right now and show some success with users that are having the most problems in a number of our departments, then I think there will be some good traction.”
Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.