VDI for the Price of a Designer Handbag?

Aug 25, 2011


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Guest Blog Post 
Sam Lee, Force 3

My wife loves her iPad, except for one shortcoming: it does not play Adobe Flash videos.  Without the Adobe Flash, she cannot watch her favorite K-pop dramas on her iPad.  While recently discussing some interesting weekend projects with Bryan Salek, a desktop specialist from VMware, and Lee Collison (a solutions architect and colleague of mine at Force 3), we came up with the idea of building a budget VMware View solution at the price of a decent handbag, say $500.  With the VMware View iPad client, not only could my wife watch her videos, I could easily get to my desktop without ever going through the boot-up process.  Obviously, my wife would definitely see more value in the handbag, but to be able to build a complete VMware View system for 10 users which follows the guideline set forth in the Force 3 VMware View architecture  was quite intriguing. 

Even more intriguing was what implications this could have for our customers in the federal government.  Agencies are being asked constantly to “do more with less”…but how can you do more with less and still maintain security, compliance, efficiency and end-user satisfaction? 

One of the “barriers to entry” of a VDI environment for federal agencies has been fear of the unknown.  However, a VDI environment, especially VMware View, can be very easy to set up and manage with the proper system architecture.  Mosa Emamjomeh, a solutions architect from Force 3, and I did extensive performance testing on the Federal Desktop Core Configuration (FDCC) desktops in 2010.  From the testing, we found that the FDCC desktop images have very high storage I/O and CPU resource requirements due to the host based security system.  We actually measured the IOPS peaking at 900 and averaging 80 IOPS per virtual machine (VM) during the boot process.  This heavy I/O consumption adds to provisioning time as well as user login time, and can increase the cost of the backend storage system. 

The storage I/O and cost problem can be solved by offloading the operating system (OS) drives (View replica and linked clones) to separate Solid State Disk (SSD) storage while placing the user data (user data disk and folder redirection) on standard SAN or NAS devices.  Depending on the sizing, internal SSD can be used, which will significantly reduce storage cost. To date, we have deployed VDI systems based on the reference architecture to several federal government customers as well as using it as Force 3’s internal VDI system.  Bottom line is, it works and it works well!

Now to take our system that was built for large scale deployments to the home.  The total bill for my home VDI system came to exactly $500, which got me a quad core AMD cpu, 16G RAM, a motherboard with built-in video, 50G SSD Drive, 500G SATA drive and a Intel NIC.  It is quite amazing how much technology $500 can get you.  The 50G SSD and 16G RAM got me a 10-user VMware View system with 1 Virtual Center, 1 View Manager Server, and 1 Security Server with 10 Windows 7 Desktops.  With the security server, I can securely access my home VDI system from outside without setting up a VPN…sitting in Starbucks with an iPad watching flash video was a true geek moment.

Building my home VDI system got me thinking about the issues my Federal customers are facing on their VDI projects.  The benefits of VDI are well established – user mobility, teleworking, Continuity of Operation (COOP), greater data security, and operational cost savings are key factors driving the adoption of VDI.  However, as we all know in the federal government, bottlenecks exist, and they can slow migration from the pilot to the production phase.

 One of the bottlenecks is your IT’s knowledge of VDI implementation and operation.  Since VDI changes the paradigm on desktop management, there is a learning curve for IT to adopt new technologies like VMware View.  However, one thing I realized over my weekend project was how straightforward the VMware View architecture is.  A fully functioning 10 user View environment with security server for external access can be setup in the matter of hours.  In fact, most of the time was spent on the Windows update.  With tight integration with the hypervisor, View achieves and easy-to-use architecture by offloading a lot of functionality to the vSphere hypervisor, which in turn means easier administration and operation. Unlike other VDI products which may require 5 separate consoles, I can manage the complete View operation in a single administration window.  Less components, less overhead, less stuff to break, less time spent on unnecessary chores.  In fact, since the Force 3 MIS team implemented View, they are spending less time on desktop management and are moving on to important projects like our Exchange 2010 migration (so I can get my 2G mailbox).

Another issue is cost, and during these challenging times of the federal government’s unknown budget circumstances, smart investments that do more for less are imperative.  There is a general belief that a VDI implementation does not provide CAPEX cost savings, and may even cost more due to the backend infrastructure.  The truth of matter is, a View system can provide CAPEX ROI and pay for itself in couple of years.  Even though not enterprise ready, my home system incorporates key architecture components like OS disk on SSD.  With View replica and linked clones on SSD, my system achieved 10 VM provisioning and re-compose operation in less than 20 minutes.  With declining cost for SSD drives and technology components, a complete View system can be designed for less than $500 per user price tag. 

So, for $500, I got a straightforward implementation and management as well as overall cost effectiveness of a VDI solution.  This should be carefully considered by federal agencies.  The challenging budgets, changing mandates for teleworking, and the reduction of the number of data centers (which therefore limits the amount of allowable space and power consumption) all point to the need for a manageable, scalable and cost-effective approach to desktop management.



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