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The VDI model doesn't have to break the bank

How an insurance broker tapped a VDI model that avoided infrastructure costs instead of adding them.

Paul Emmel faced a common desktop dilemma: how to move to a virtual desktop infrastructure model to eliminate desktop management headaches without incurring hefty VDI costs.

That is the biggest issue that plagues us -- Microsoft's uncanny ability to release updates that take machines down.

As assistant vice president in charge of DeWitt Stern Group Inc.'s IT infrastructure, Emmel was in the middle of a Microsoft Corp. Windows 7 migration. The majority of the New York-based insurance and risk management firm's software vendors had certified their applications on Windows 7 already, and that had pushed up his desktop refresh cycle.

"I was looking at all we had to do to maintain our 60-plus desktops on a day-to-day basis -- Windows updates, security updates, and break-fix and replacement -- and thought that VDI would be a better way to handle this," Emmel said. In the VDI model, data and applications would reside on the servers and desktops would be replaced with thin clients. Updates no longer would be an issue, and thin clients could be swapped out easily.

It all sounded simple enough, but adopting a VDI model meant building an additional production environment -- including new servers and storage, Emmel discovered. "We had to have production-grade servers because we wanted redundancy," he said. "With VDI solutions, you can't have that single point of failure; so we were looking for that redundancy and looking to save on hardware, and came across Nutanix Inc."

Nutanix makes Complete Cluster, an appliance that combines storage and compute resources -- including solid-state drives, hard drives, and compute and file systems -- in one box. It obviates the need to buy an entire production environment, which would include two high-end production servers connected through Fibre Channel technology to shared storage. "The cost of the Fibre Channel network alone was a quarter of the cost of Nutanix, and the Fibre Channel storage was more expensive than Nutanix," Emmel said.

That is not to say that Nutanix was free by any means, said Emmel, who did not give an exact price but added that he did save money compared to building out a new production environment. "The cost benefits were in replacing desktops as they came up, versus having to get a new production environment," he said.

VDI costs give-and-take

The VDI model also allowed Emmel to save in other ways. He chose Microsoft's thin PCs, which he got for a low price as part of his Software Assurance agreement. He also reduced costs by taking advantage of his premium license for VMware View, the client that runs the master VDI image. That license includes the use of VMware's ThinApp virtualization technology, and enabled Emmel to run such applications as Microsoft Visio outside the master image.

The 150-employee DeWitt Stern Group started with server virtualization five years ago, and introduced its VDI model this year. Laptops are next on the list, but the benefits of virtualizing laptops are not as strong, according to Emmel. The goal of VDI is to eliminate management and security headaches by housing the data and applications in the data center, but the 40 or so people using laptops at the company would not benefit from a single image. "They are super users who fall outside what I would call the norm. They have special needs that aren't met by VDI."

Those special needs include multiple applications that aren't used by the company at large, as well as local processing power and applications so users don't have to be connected. Instead, Emmel is considering laptop virtualization for users who don't need a permanent laptop but use loaners on a temporary basis.

In the case of the VDI model, IT and business peace of mind hit the same target, Emmel said: no downtime for end users. "That is the biggest issue that plagues us -- Microsoft's uncanny ability to release updates that take machines down," he said. When a machine goes down now, he has three other thin clients ready to connect to the VDI. The main application -- which the company uses to handle and track customers' insurance needs -- also is hosted by the maker of that application.

"We are, in essence, a fully redundant virtualized environment that operates under one big shared-resource model," he said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, News Director.

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