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.”

Brian Heaton  | 

Brian Heaton was a writer for Government Technology magazine from 2011 to mid-2015.