Stereotypes abound regarding virtual desktops—especially the kind that put all the processing power on the back end and put a dumb terminal in front.
None of the stereotypes include dual-monitor thin-clients on the manufacturing floor of a fast-growing regional brewery, running a high-end brewhouse with graphics showing every stage of brewing, filtering and packaging and letting brewmasters control the process via touchscreens.
Boulevard Brewing Co. is just lucky, according to Tony Lux who, until he hired a full-time programmer this year, was the sole IT staff for a 91-person, 140,000-barrel-per-year Kansas City brewery and who revels in the job title Purveyor of Technology.
Though Lux didn't intend to use desktop virtualization and had never heard of the vendor he ended up hiring Lux finished the company's migration to an IT-controlled brewing system by plugging in virtual-client hardware from Pano Logic, whose claim to fame is to run native Windows applications and drivers and graphics entirely from the server without requiring any processing power on the client at all.
Pano Logic and competitors such as NComputing are attracting attention from some companies that would never have considered virtual desktops before, more because virtualization has become common enough to be one of the standard short-list options for hardware upgrades, according to Mark Bowker, infrastructure analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group.
"We see more interest in VDI when security is the issue or when people say compliance is the issue that lets them sleep at night," Bowker says. "There are a lot of people looking at it on an application by application basis, though."
Customers understand the difference between computing hardware and computing resources and are perfectly happy to shift to virtual editions of one or the other if the performance and price are right, agrees Chris Wolf of the Burton Group.
There are enough thin-client implementations available that it's not hard to match one to a set of requirements, though there's no guarantee they'll work better than traditional versions, Wolf says.
Boulevard Brewing did move almost all its data center applications onto VMware ESX virtual servers, but it wasn't interested in virtual desktops any more than it was in new and unproven brewing technology, Lux says.
A Physical Move and a Virtual One
Three years ago, the 20-year-old company was operating out of a turn-of-the-century brick building in a historic part of the city, using what the company's promotional copy calls "a vintage Bavarian brewhouse," designed for the kind of artisanal brewing founder John McDonald had in mind. The building and the brewing equipment brought lots of historic flavor to the product, but the company was topping out its beer capacity.
"We could only do 35 barrels per batch, so when we hit around 100,000 barrels, that was it," Lux says. "We had to run 365 days a year to do that."
So the company sold the old building and bought a pair of new ones that doubled its capacity, and upgraded its brewing equipment to new versions of the venerable stuff it had always used. "All the brewing stuff is from Germany; Krones, which is the Mercedes Benz of brewing equipment," Lux says.
The IT migration wasn't simple, but not unusually difficult, either: Ethernet over Fibre backbone links to the headquarters building eight miles away, off-site backup-and-recovery, new hardware for the data center and VMware ESX virtual-server infrastructure to run it all, Lux says.
The only persistent problem was how to run the automation controls that brewhouse workers use to control the mixing, fermentation, filtering and packaging.
The brewhouses run on manufacturing execution system software from Wonderware, which uses touch-control screens to give workers graphical links to the automation controls it maintains with the brewing equipment, as well as back-end connections to the ERP system that keeps tabs on inventory and shipping.
"The old brewhouse was less automated, so we only had to worry about one Windows 2000 machine," Lux says. "Here we were talking about let the users see everything in the process, so we'd have to put in workstations everywhere, with dual monitors and touch controls and put it all inside industrial cabinets to keep them away from the moisture and heavy equipment."
The company was also loath to put relatively expensive PCs in the manufacturing danger zone.
"We didn't want to put money out there with the guys driving forklifts," Lux says.
Pano Logic Hardware Fits Right In
Among other problems, the Wonderware clients didn't understand virtualization, so some implementations forced Lux to patch together two sessions running under different licenses, which worked except the cursor and some of the controls would work on one monitor and not the other.
A Wyse unit mounted in a waterproof washdown cabinet almost made the cut. But graphic performance was so bad screen refreshes were visible to the naked eye and each unit cost a disappointing $750.
Finally, at a VMware training session, Lux says, another customer mentioned to Lux that his own boss had been impressed by a Pano Logic demo at VMworld a few weeks before. Neither he nor Lux knew anything about Pano Logic except that it was supposed to be inexpensive.
"I said 'OK, I'm cheap; I'll call," Lux says. "We got it in and it turned out to be a great product for us."
Dual-monitor Pano Logic machines cost $350 and were less vulnerable to the environment and performed much better than the Wyse machines, Lux says.
Boulevard ended up installing 15 Pano Logic machines and hiring a programmer who keeps customizing the Wonderware to make the brew controls more granular and easier to use. The only holdup was a refresh-frequency problem with one type of monitor, which Pano Logic fixed at no cost, Lux says.
Compare that to the cost of $2000 per station for the same number of PCs plus $1500 each for protective cabinets and Boulevard saved $47,000 on hardware on a budget that runs around $60,000 per year for capital costs outside of special projects.
"We haven't had to replace anything yet, but if something does break or get killed, who cares, just throw it out," Lux says. "If something hangs, we just relaunch the session and we're right back up and running, so that's not an issue. The hardware is almost disposable."
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