The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency is taking federal IT standardization efforts to heart, with a plan to deploy virtual desktops for up to 12,000 concurrent users in the next three years.

Last month the agency awarded a five-year, $25 million contract to Accelera Solutions, a virtualization solutions provider, to help standardize its IT architecture and provide the virtual technology. At the end of the contract, potentially more than 19,000 EPA employees will be able to work in a virtual desktop environment.

Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions, said that a couple of small pilot programs that involved about 50 people at the EPA were done over the last year, calling the pilots “proof of concept” and a way to show how a virtualized desktop environment would work. The pilots were well received, which ultimately led to EPA’s decision to move forward.

“They had people going off in a bunch of different directions with technology and viewpoints on how things should be rolled out,” Brown recalled. “So we got together with the EPA headquarters to develop a standard blueprint through some pilots ... and had [EPA officials] decide on a standard architecture that we could develop a contract around.”

With the contract in place, Accelera is planning to launch a larger pilot plan focused on customizing the virtual desktops to meet some business requirements during the next two months. According to Brown, the total number of users will be around 300-400 for the new pilot. He anticipates approximately 1,000 people will be using the virtualized technology by the end of the 2012 fiscal year.

Efficiency a Key Benefit

Brown touted the practical day-to-day advantage of working in a virtual environment, particularly the flexibility of being able to work in any location with all of a person’s programs and materials, instead of being tied down to one particular workstation.

“They can use their home computer, login and get that same work experience and not have to go through cumbersome VPN technologies and have a totally different user experience,” Brown explained. “Natural disasters, road closures, you name the catastrophe, people can pretty much work under any conditions.”

In addition, Brown claimed that many businesses and organizations realize significant cost savings by going to virtual desktops.

“If you compare a typical traditional distributed desktop computing environment to an environment that uses virtual desktop technology for 90 percent or more of the user community, it’s common for customer to save 30-40 percent over a three-year period,” Brown said.

When contacted by Government Technology, an EPA spokesperson said the program office that is handling the contract with Accelera would not be able to immediately comment on the details of the agreement, including any potential financial savings that may be realized from the move to virtualized desktops.

When the rollout is complete, instead of an individual computer in the EPA having a host of programs, the user of a virtual desktop has his or her entire operating system and personalized settings on a remote server. The user simply logs in on whatever terminal or computer is available at the officer or at home and their entire desktop is available to them.

A monitor, keyboard and mouse are still a part of the workstation, 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 where the person’s bookmarks, default printers and other personalized settings are stored.

Brown emphasized that making sure the virtual experience remains uniquely personal to a user is “very important” in the overall success of the EPA project.

“A person’s persona in a virtual desktop environment is one of the most critical things you have to move forward ... from their old desktop,” Brown said. “You never want to unplug someone from a physical desktop and plug them into a fresh image and start working. If you go through it in a regimented way ... there’s a lot less shock to the user base.”

Challenges & Best Practices

Brown was adamant that because the executive decision makers at the EPA are championing the move to the technology, it makes the shift easier. He said the concept was well received and that the challenges of moving to a virtual desktop are less about the technology and more about changing a worker’s mindset from having to be connected to a physical device.

When asked if all the virtual desktops running through a network could impede responsiveness when a user logs in and the overall speed of the environment, Brown said that the way the entire system is designed has a lot to do with its performance.

“There are some best practices that we will encourage the EPA to use,” Brown said. “At the lowest level you’d do things at your storage tier, [including] putting in a flash cache to handle lots of network traffic to the storage layer. At your servers, you’ll need lots of RAM and ... quite a few things have to go into building the actual software components that are part of this architecture.”

When asked if EPA’s move to a virtualized desktop environment might spark a larger transition by federal agencies, Brown said the EPA really set a good example.

“Instead of letting people go out and it being the wild, wild, west and do whatever they want to [they said] ‘why not develop an enterprise standard and proven configuration and that way we can use lessons learned across the entire enterprise,’” Brown said. “They did a really good thing when they established this method of allowing people to adopt virtualized desktops in the agency.”

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Brian Heaton  |  Senior Writer

Brian Heaton is a senior writer for Government Technology. He primarily covers technology legislation and IT policy issues. Brian started his journalism career in 1999, covering sports and fitness for two trade publications based in Long Island, N.Y. He's also a member of the Professional Bowlers Association, and competes in regional tournaments throughout Northern California and Nevada.