The convergence in late 2008 of recession-induced belt-tightening and several impending organizational initiatives, including the institution's three-year desktop refresh cycle, caused Lake Mary, Fla.-based CFE Federal Credit Union (CFE) to think outside the box -- the desktop box, that is. "In addition, we were nearing the rollout of electronic check capture enterprisewide," recalls Kevin Wright, VP of information technology at CFE. "And we were in the process of opening four new branches."
At that time CFE ($1.2 billion in assets) also was beginning to virtualize data center servers, making the exploration of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) a logical extension, Wright relates. Among the solutions that CFE evaluated was a new "zero-client" cube -- a desktop virtualization device that contained no CPU, no memory, no operating system and no software -- from Redwood City, Calif.-based Pano Logic. "We liked the solution, but felt it needed further development," Wright explains.
Ultimately, an early 2009 pilot was conducted using a different thin-client hardware vendor combined with VMware's (Palo Alto, Calif.) View desktop management solution. While successful, according to Wright, the pilot led CFE to upgrade its broadband-enabled WAN to a Metro Ethernet to significantly reduce latencies.
Then, CFE learned in late 2009 that key improvements had been made to Pano Logic's palm-size Pano System device. This, in combination with CFE's WAN enhancements, made the Pano cubes a more attractive option, and the piloted configuration was abandoned, Wright reports.
During March 2010, CFE's 25-person IT staff ripped and replaced a total of 300 physical desktops across all of its 19 branches and, simultaneously, installed electronic check capture hardware -- with no operational downtime. "Whenever an issue with a certain virtual desktop arose, we just assigned the end user a new image with a few keystrokes," Wright explains, noting that this permitted technicians to work on the faulty image offline.
If there has been a downside to trailblazing VDI, it has been adapting to new idiosyncrasies, such as so-called "boot storms," acknowledges Wright. "When 20 users hit the system simultaneously, you need to be sized properly to support it," he comments. Another challenge is devising work-arounds for software incompatibilities, which, according to Wright, should be alleviated as application vendors catch up.
Rewards, From Acquisition to Disposal
Regardless, the deployment was a home run. As for costs, the sub-$400 solid-state Panos' cubes reduced capital outlays, eliminated the need for VMware View licensing and slashed maintenance due to their lack of moving parts, Wright stresses. In addition, each device runs on just 3 watts of power, significantly cutting electricity and cooling costs, he adds.
Disaster recovery and security also are vastly improved. For starters, Wright says, the boxes sit next to the monitors rather than on the floor, where they are vulnerable to jostling or even flooding. Also, if a device does go down, there's no re-installation -- just plug and play, he emphasizes. And in terms of security, nothing actually resides on the desktop, completely removing loss risks.
An unexpected reward has been reduced training room administration. "Before Panos, configuring each desktop for a training session was labor-intensive," Wright explains. "Now we ... can enable a whole room with a few mouse clicks."
And continued savings are predicted. "For example, we expect the devices to last a minimum of eight years," comments Wright. "Previously we replaced desktops every fourth year."
Going forward, the zero-client cubes will be rolled out throughout the remainder of the organization. "Within about two years our desktops will be 90 to 95 percent virtual enterprisewide," asserts Wright. "Plus, server virtualization will proceed until we're about 90 percent virtual."
Wright also foresees an exponential growth in the overall VDI community. "At conferences, VDI is always among the top five considerations for IT professionals," he says. "And every month I take calls from peers about virtual desktops. Clearly, there's a ton of interest."