Blessing in Disguise: Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

When Sterlite Technologies wanted to set up an optical fibre plant in Shendra (near Aurangabad), its Head-IT, Md. Jawed Ahmed, was ecstatic. This was a blessing in disguise and his chance to play with a relatively new technology like virtual desktop infrastructure or VDI.

Sneha Jha Oct 25th 2011

When Sterlite Technologies wanted to set up an optical fibre plant in Shendra (near Aurangabad), its Head-IT, Md. Jawed Ahmed, was ecstatic. This was a blessing in disguise and his chance to play with a relatively new technology like virtual desktop infrastructure or VDI.

When Sterlite Technologies wanted to set up an optical fibre plant in Shendra (near Aurangabad), its Head-IT, Md. Jawed Ahmed, was ecstatic. This was a blessing in disguise and his chance to play with a relatively new technology like virtual desktop infrastructure or VDI.

The company had been contemplating taking the VDI route for quite some time but it was difficult to do it in a piecemeal manner. Ahmed was just waiting for an opportunity to get his hands on a consolidated requirement for a large number of desktops. And the Shendra plant had a one-time requirement of 200 computers—just what he needed.

But apart from the appeal of using new technology,  Ahmed knew that a virtual desktop solution would resolve some of the most critical business concerns lingering in the mind of Sanjit Singh Bhatia, plant head-Shendra, Sterlite Technologies. “Procurement of new desktops was an immediate need and adding capacity meant that the ugly challenges of operational manageability would crop up,” he says. Also, manufacturing optical fibre is a guarded technology so there were issues relating to intellectual property and data security.

It was clear that VDI was an idea whose time had come.

And today, six months after launching the initiative, the organization is reaping VDI’s benefits. Unlike normal desktops that consume almost 200 watts of power, Ahmed says his virtual desktops consume only 7-8 watts. “Unlike a conventional solution we are using only 1/20th or 1/30th power consumption.” The project has also reduced the company’s carbon footprint. Enthused by these benefits, Sterlite is expanding the project to its largest optical fibre manufacturing plant in Waluj, also in Aurangabad.

Although, server virtualization has consistently got good press, it’s cousin VDI isn’t as popular.  That’s probably because those who got their hands dirty know that VDI isn’t as easy a project to implement. Here are some lessons they have learnt.

Cost Isn’t Its Selling Point
Cost cutting is everybody’s favorite reason to virtualize. But when it comes to getting buy-in for VDI, saving costs should be the last benefit on your list.
Ahmed, for example, realized that the best way of selling the idea to management was not pushing it as a cost-optimization strategy. “Cost savings is actually a misnomer. Instead, look at improving reliability, customer or user service, manageability, and the overall working environment. Only then business will buy the idea. I sold it to business on those considerations and it worked like a charm,” he says.  
Analysts agree. “Our research shows that cost is not the prime driver for VDI. Business isn’t turning a blind eye to the savings from virtualization, but they like to see it in the context of ‘bigger-picture’ requirements: Reduce manageability woes, improve BCP and data security, and provide workers anytime/anywhere access to their desktops.”
And cost wasn’t the foremost concern when Prashanth M.J., CTO, Firstsource Solutions, latched on to VDI in 2008 when the technology was far from being widespread. The company bet big on VDI to accommodate growth and achieve agility. “Over a weekend, our company decided to buy a floor (department in BPO parlance) in Argentina. And we had to reconfigure all the desktops. The ability to ramp up quickly was a challenge. I thought there must be a better way of being agile and flexible,” says Prashanth.
Although agility was the leading driver Prashanth was guided by other objectives of flexibility, and anytime, anywhere access. “In a BPO environment, there’s a need to variablize this cost, if I don’t do that there is a misalignment with business demands. The other was the need to build BCP and also support mobile users and home users so that they get the same level of security that we have in the office premises. These were the other imperatives we had in mind,” he says.

And that pointed to VDI.

Prashanth, like Ahmed, also advocates putting cost on the back burner. Pegging VDI as a solution that’s driven by business needs is more potent than pinning it as a cost saver.

A Leap of Faith is a Bad Idea
Once you do a quick review of the business imperatives of your VDI project you might be tempted to plunge headlong into the deployment. But hold your horses. As the old adage goes, the devil is in the details, and VDI is no exception.
“Before you take a deep dive with both feet, you must first dip your toes and test the waters. Investigate all the options, wade through the various choices, look for use-case scenarios and only then map out your strategy,” says Ahmed.
From his experience, Ahmed says, CIOs should not trust VDI vendors blindly.  Instead, he says, they should look for user reference case studies of companies in their respective industries. Ahmed surveyed the entire industry landscape to understand the spectrum of products available. “We also looked at the market share of competing solutions and did a small dipstick to see which are the top 100 companies using VDI. We tried to investigate large manufacturing companies using the solution. Based on that, we short-listed the providers,” he says.
Ahmed suggests that CIOs should not choose a newly launched product and that they should look at the lifecycle of the product. For example, if the product has been introduced only in the last year then you don’t know how it will fare two years down the line, says Ahmed. “You should choose a product that is very stable, rugged and has the heritage of being supported by a large vendor,” he says.

The User Rules
More than any new technology, VDI perhaps is one that threatens user freedom the most. That’s why for the success of the project, CIOs should keep the end user in mind, more than they ever have.
“If the plan includes thousands of desktops, ensuring the first hundred users’ happiness is critical to satisfying the next hundred,” says Vishal Tripathi, principal research analyst, Gartner India. According to Gartner, end user satisfaction has been identified as the topmost factor in determining success of any VDI pilot.
That’s something that has been Firstsource’s Prashanth’s biggest learning from his VDI project. “Managing end user expectation is pivotal.  In hindsight, we could have done a better job of it. If I were to do the project all over again, I would focus on that,” says Prashanth.
When Prashanth first suggested VDI, his end users had many reservations and apprehensions. “They said ‘you are taking away my space.’ They didn’t trust us in the beginning,” says Prashanth.
That’s why end user profiling is important to analyze and segment users and make sure that CIOs fully understand their needs, expectations and constraints. This helps avoid change management issues and performance bottlenecks.
Apprehensions were aplenty when Firstsource’s IT team initiated the initial round of discussions with end users. To allay their fears there were intensive sessions to handhold them and take them through the learning curve. “We did a very detailed POC a cross-section of users. Then we went about creating an optimal design, taking care of information security and surveying the threat landscape in a virtualized environment,” says Prashanth.
Prashanth says training and education for every functional group should be tailor-made to their requirements. CIOs should keep in mind that the marketing group needs a totally different set of applications compared to an HR or service quality team.
Sterlite’s Ahmed also lays emphasis on end-user training. He says he had a week long, extremely comprehensive training programs for them. It was focused on the similarities with the conventional system and the advantages. “Don’t show them the challenges of VDI, CIOs should only bring the advantages to their notice. For example, we did not dwell on the security and control part at all,” he says.
But even if all these issues are surmounted and the rollout is smooth, CIOs will still have to deal with company politics, says Lionel Lamy, IDC’s research director for software and services. “Never underestimate the resistance to organizational change,” he cautions.

The Tech Part is Tricky
VDI could be a game changer if you understand what it really takes to implement the technology. There are some kinks in the VDI armor that could prove challenging.

Take, hardware sizing, for instance. Sterlite Technologies found some surprises in this area. Today, says Ahmed, if he were to implement the VDI project in other plants he would do a better job of hardware sizing. When vendors suggest a number for hardware sizing, they are talking in terms of an ideal condition but CIOs should add 20 percent to that number, according to Ahmed.

“Initially, we wanted to go ahead with 100 users but since we were planning to scale it up to 250 users we purchased hardware for 250 users. But then we realized that for 100 users we were actually using up the hardware of 150 VDIs.  So, for the next project at Waluj we have to suitably add hardware. As suggested by the vendor we have upscaled it by 30-40 percent and purchased,” says Ahmed.
Apart from hardware sizing, Prashanth forewarns that VDI has the ability to choke network infrastructure. If you have limited bandwidth and high-latency connections, performance bottlenecks will crop up. Due to which, bandwidth design, traffic engineering and capacity management can be a challenge.

“Whenever our users handled rich graphics, like Powerpoint presentations, it took time to refresh. That is one of the things we learnt. CIOs should look at the network design more closely. They have to understand the usage scenario thoroughly,” he says.  

Also, because VDI is a relatively new technology, finding reliable in-house skill sets or competence is hard. So it is important to scout for a good implementation partner. “Skill-sets are difficult to recruit and maintain. We have a three-year contract with the vendor. And we do plan to develop in-house competence,” says Ahmed. Prashanth also advises that it’s good to have one or two skilled in-house resources.

Whether you like it or not, VDI is the next wave. Not only as a technology in itself, but even for supporting strategies like BYOD and telecommuting that are gradually becoming inevitable. Keeping these tips in mind might just result in a smooth rollout.