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How Virtual Desktops are Saving the State of Iowa $6.5 Million a Year

Following some start-up glitches, the Department of Workforce Development's installation of thousands of cloud-based computers for unemployment benefits and job searching has been deemed a success.

In 2012, Microsoft trumpeted a study by IDC, an IT research firm, showing that cloud computing would generate more than $1.1 trillion in new revenue and 14 million jobs worldwide by 2015. The study reported that the cloud would help companies “be more innovative … by freeing up IT managers to work on more mission-critical projects.” 

The study also predicted that the jobs created will be split about equally between small and large businesses. 
Yet in Iowa, Gary Bateman said he’s seeing cloud computing help people who have lost their jobs. Bateman, the CIO of Iowa’s Department of Workforce Development, explained that help is coming in the form of thin clients that have been deployed around the state after budget cuts forced administrators to close 36 unemployment field offices. 

“Computers running the virtual desktop software have been installed in libraries, National Guard armories and other facilities – 99 locations total – giving citizens a place to sign up for unemployment benefits,” said Bateman. “The shift to virtual desktop technology allowed the state to increase the number of locations where unemployment services are available despite the fact that the legislature closed a number of the agency’s branch offices in a cost-cutting move.”

After some initial hang-ups, the program has been so successful that some 1,800 thin clients have been deployed around the state in public and private institutions. Bateman said they rolled the first one out in July 2013. “My director wanted 200 [thin client PCs] by the end of the year,” he continued. “We had 500 of them. It's been a phenomenal success!”

The state has saved $6.5 million by closing the field offices and replacing them with a network of thin client PCs. When the savings is subtracted from the cost of the new technology, the overall expense for the state is $10,000, according to Bateman.

Overcoming Challenges to Provide Better Security and Faster Speeds

A thin client is a scaled-down computer that must be hooked up to network infrastructure in order to run applications. The Google Chromebook and HP's Compaq t5730w are examples of popular thin client PCs. 

While private sales of thin clients have steadily picked up, including a surge last quarter, governmental employment agencies around the country have not widely adopted the cloud-based computing system. Some states are using thin clients in piloted kiosk-type programs, but overall they’ve not been deployed to the same extent as in Iowa.

Part of the challenge of convincing labor officials lies within Iowa’s rollout of the thin client system. Early on some librarians complained publicly that the system didn’t work. Meanwhile, an unreleased report from the US Department of Labor was leaked to the Des Moines Register, and it criticized the kiosks for not providing adequate services to unemployed residents.  

“Oh, we had plenty of challenges,” Bateman said. “The technology did break. The media down came hard on us because they were skeptical; they would show up at a rural location and find the computer turned off, then report on it.”

At the same time, users complained about slow speeds and computers that froze. 

A big problem was regenerating dynamic desktops. “Because of that, we started looking at NetApp," Bateman explained. The result: Time spent by administration to keep those desktops up to date was cut dramatically. What used to take all weekend for updates now takes about two hours.

The department also enlisted the help of support personnel to help with upkeep and maintenance of the thin clients. Now, the system is much more safe, secure and quicker than traditional desktop kiosks.

“When you hook to the server, you’re looking at a dynamic desktop, you get a brand new desktop,” said Bateman. “With the virtual desktop, as soon as they sign out, it destroys the information – so not only does it keep things running fast, it protects private information.”

A System that Mirrors the New Job Hunt

One of the major concerns detractors had about the system was that many unemployment claimants would lack the computer literacy skills to adequately utilize the thin client virtual desktops.  

“We heard all kind of things about how silly we were to expect people to have computer skills,” said Bateman. “But that percentage is becoming fewer and fewer.” Bateman also noted that if a job hunter wants to apply for a job at  Starbucks or Walmart, they’re going to have to fill out an online application.  

“And we do teach those skills,” Bateman added. 

As for impaired participants, such as the blind or the deaf, the department says it has partnered with service agencies, such as the Iowa Department for the Blind, to ensure those claimants have access to the system. 

Overall, the numbers show that the population served by the department is increasingly tech-savvy. “We’re at or above 50 percent of hitting mobile services—this concept that people aren’t technologically literate is going away,” said Iowa Department of Workforce Innovation Application Development Manager Richard Thielman. 

John Sepulvado is from Southern California. He enjoys writing, reading and wants to take up fishing. He wrote for Government Technology for a short time in 2014.