Channel Partners Make Virtual Desktop Infrastructure a Reality

Implementing VDI strategy requires expertise that many organizations lack. To reap virtual desktop benefits that include cost savings and better security, many IT pros turn to system integrators, resellers and other service providers to set up the VDI and make sure IT staff know how to make the most of it.

When the New York Army National Guard sought a technology changeover that would move it away from conventional PCs, the organization tapped a channel ally to help get the job done.

The Guard tapped systems integrator Force 3 as its partner for deploying a virtual desktop environment. The work actually involved two projects; one for the Guard's research and development network and the other for the organization's production network.

Key technologies included VMware View desktop virtualization software and PC-over-IP zero clients from Samsung.

Clarke Caporale, information assurance manager with the New York Army National Guard, says working with an integrator instead of going it alone helped shorten deployment time. Force 3 got the desktop virtualization project up and running and into production in a week and a half, he says. "With a system as complex as VMware View, it would take us three weeks to get everything configured and installed, and another month of training to get up on our feet, even in a limited capacity."

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The benefits of VDI stem from the ability to run desktops and applications within the central data center. Advocates say this approach provides better security and eases the administration burden.

For example, an IT manager can patch and update a few virtualized desktop images centrally instead of dealing with diverse desktop devices individually. Virtualization also makes for a device-agnostic environment. Organizations can use the VDI approach to manage a range of gear including thin clients, zero clients, tablets and other mobile devices. VDI also can also help the IT shop avoid frequent tech refresh cycles. Since the heavily lifting of computing takes place behind the firewall, client-side devices remain viable over a longer period.

The Guard isn't the only enterprise turning to the channel for assistance with virtual desktop infrastructure technology. Government and corporate IT shops tend to have sufficient expertise in the server flavor of virtualization, but the VDI skill set often proves harder to pull together. Accordingly, some virtual desktop adopters are tapping resellers and integrators to kick start their projects.

Channel companies play a number of roles in VDI, from pure consulting and advisory services to installation and training. Meanwhile, integrators contribute their experience in virtualization products and integration approaches, guiding customers toward objectives ranging from hardware cost reduction to mobile device security.

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In the Guard's case, the capability to access VDI skills motivated its partnering initiative. Retirements and federal budget pressure limit the supply of IT staffers available to government agencies.

Caporale cites the "draw-down of the amount of trained personnel" and the time it would take to train new people or temporary assets. "Every day we get more and more requirements in IT and fewer and fewer resources to field those requirements. We have knowledge gaps and we need to fill those knowledge gaps with people who are partners."

Force 3, based on its previous work with the Guard, was already familiar with organization's infrastructure and could therefore determine the right technology fit, Caporale says. To that end, the integrator designed the Guard's virtualization solution, installed it, and provided training.

The training element looms large. In addition to expertise in virtualization solutions from such vendors as VMware and Citrix Systems, the day-to-day operation of a VDI deployment requires a breadth of technical knowledge. Desktop virtualization takes operating systems, data, and applications from conventional client PCs and laptops and transfers them to the data center. Users' desktop environments exist as virtual machines housed on centralized servers.

Sudhir Verma, vice president of consulting services at Force 3, says organizations should consider early on whether they have the right mix of skills to run a virtual desktop environment.

Verma says VDI requires a thorough understanding of the Microsoft desktop, including operating systems, group policies and Active Directory. IT personnel must also understand server, storage and network virtualization, while having a grasp of server hardware as well. "Cloud and VDI are going to be the solutions that drastically change the skill set environment."

VDI, Thin Clients Make Desktop Rollout Easier

As with the Guard, CredAbility, a nonprofit consumer credit counseling service, saw a need for outside expertise when it embarked on a VDI project.

The Atlanta-based company, facing yet another PC replacement cycle, decided to adopt virtual desktops as an alternative. Since the desktop image becomes a data center function, VDI customers may use thin clients instead of fully loaded desktops. Those devices generally outlast traditional PCs, which eases the chore of desktop replacement.

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"We we're coming up on a PC refresh cycle," notes Chris Martin, director of IT at CredAbility, adding that many machines were reaching four or five years of age. "We needed to make a significant capital spend to refresh the desktop environment. That was basically how we came to...that decision."

CredAbility consulted with technology product and services provider CDW, weighed a number of desktop virtualization options and eventually selected VMware View virtualization software and thin clients. CDW then played an advisory role on CredAbility's virtual desktop rollout. Martin says it tries to deploy technology on its own as much as possible, noting that the company will ultimately be left to manage the solution.

Brad Zimmer, account manager at CDW, says the company provided CredAbility a range of consulting services, from a high-level overview of VMware View to a discussion of best practices for desktop virtualization. The company also arranged meetings between Martin and CDW's virtualization technology vendor partners.

Speed and Product Knowledge Key for Resellers

A partner's product knowledge was also a factor in the VDI effort for Mid Coast Hospital. The Brunswick, Maine-based healthcare provider selected GreenPages Technology Solutions for the project after evaluating a handful of vendors. Speed was a key consideration—a new urgent care center would be the first deployment site, and the goal was to have the virtual desktop technology operational within 90 days.

Michael Poulin, manager of network services at Mid Coast, says the facility's IT staff has done many projects on its own. Since it lacked a wealth of virtualization experience and needed to rapidly field a solution, though, Mid Coast decided to use an outside vendor for the virtual desktop initiative. The hospital brought in GreenPages to design and install its VDI solution, and, Poulin says, the partner helped Mid Coast "get&up to speed quickly."

As for technical knowledge, Mid Coast was able to leverage GreenPage's background in cloud and virtualization consulting and integration. "We don't know all of the products and all of the moving parts that are needed to bring up the virtual environment," Poulin notes.

The technology portfolio included VMware View, Atlantis Computing ILIO storage optimization software, and LiquidwareLabs ProfileUnity user virtualization and profile management product. GreenPages also contributed insight into the ins and outs of software licensing, proper hardware configuration and specialized third-party products. "They were able to recommend an entire suite of both hardware and software products to meet our needs," Poulin says.

Francis Czekalski, senior enterprise consultant at GreenPages, says the Mid Coast project was challenging due to the number of unknowns. For example, GreenPages didn't know what the I/O profile was going to be for the virtual desktops. Atlantis' storage optimization product, however, helped mitigate that risk, according to Czekalski, who proposed ILIO as part of the initial VDI design.

Seth Knox, director of marketing at Atlantis, says VDI has had a long history of storage challenges, noting that the cost and/or performance of storage have prevented installations from scaling toward the 1,000-user mark.

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The ILIO software, Poulin adds, lets Mid Coast avoid the boot storms that can occur when large numbers of users simultaneously log in to their virtual desktops—at the start of the workday, for instance. I/O issues can also occur during antivirus scans and patching, but it hasn't been an issue for Mid Coast, he says. "Even over low-bandwidth WAN links, we have no issue with booting at all or performance."

Another uncertainty, Czekalski says, stemmed from the fact that, while most of the hospital's applications would work in a VDI setting, there was some uncertainty regarding a couple specialized medical apps. In those cases, GreenPages's virtualization experience, coupled with Mid Coasts insight into its own applications, provided a workaround.

In one example, the partners worked together to tweak the hospital's CPSI electronic medical record system. Czekalski says GreenPages and Mid Coast collaborated to modify configuration files through scripts to get the application to work properly in a virtualized environment. "Their knowledge of the app was critical," he says. "It was a true team effort."

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