Data centres supplement: VDI impact feature – Virtual reality

Lots of financial institutions these days are moving away from the traditional PC route with the hard drive next to your desk, and instead looking to adopt desktop virtualisation. Moving to such an arrangement however, places a lot more demand on your data centre. Making the move requires FIs to adopt a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which is the server computing model that enables desktop virtualisation, encompassing the hardware and software systems needed to support the environment. David Adams looks at the impact of VDI on your operations and data centre

Virtualisation is an attractive idea: enhanced capabilities, including simplified yet more comprehensive control, more operational flexibility, improved security and even a dash of environmental friendliness through a reduction in power usage inside the office – all for less money.

Server virtualisation has proved the most popular flavour so far, with virtualisation of the desktop running a distant second, or possibly even third, behind application virtualisation. But now a growing number of financial companies, from investment banks and trading houses to retail banks and insurers, are considering the use of a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI – VMware’s terminology, although it is becoming a generic term).

VDI is seductive because it offers – in theory at least – a happy medium between a PC-based infrastructure and a thin client arrangement. Users still have an individual desktop and access to all the power of a PC, but the desktop is hosted in the organisation’s data centre (or a data centre run by a managed service provider like Equinix), thus generating a host of operational and cost benefits.

The common feature of all virtualised desktops and servers is the hypervisor, the software that runs on servers at the data centre, providing the platform on which the virtual machines run. Each virtual desktop gets its own helping of operating system, along with the applications a user requires, unlike thin client architectures where multiple users share one instance of the same OS.

Jürgen Dick, senior manager in product marketing, EMEA, at VMware, is happy to reel off a list of clients investigating or implementing VDI - although sadly for us, not so ready to name names at this stage. Claimed clients include “seven big banks” in London, as well as banks and insurers in the US and Germany. The reasons for deployment, he says, are always roughly the same: “It’s ‘how can I easily reduce my costs for maintenance of desktops, how can I be more flexible?’”

In these cash-strapped times it’s not surprising that economic motives are powerful. Dick points to research from the analysts at IDC that suggests VDI can generate potential savings of $600 to $650 per desktop. Or more if a company also virtualises its applications, because they can be sent direct to each virtual desktop in a little bundle containing enough elements of the operating system to allow execution, thus reducing the footprint of each virtualised desktop.

VDI creates efficiencies in a myriad of ways, claims Geert Jansen, product marketing manager at Red Hat. His company recently released Red Hat Enterprise Virtualization 2.2, including its first desktop virtualisation offering, alongside server virtualisation software for enterprise Linux and Windows. “You’re not managing thousands of individual workstations, you can manage all of them as one,” he explains. “Data is no longer sitting on distributed end points. You can do offline patching.” Companies may also see the potential of the technology as a means of reducing headcount through streamlining company-wide desktop support teams.

The practical implications of additional flexibility are also appealing, such as a more efficient office environment of hotdesking employees who are also able to access systems remotely; plus improvements to customer facing processes. For example, it could become much easier for staff to help customers through different stages of applying for, or buying, a product using the same screens on different machines inside a retail bank branch.

VDI is also having a noticeable effect in service provider data centres, including those of business continuity providers like SunGard Availability Systems. “People like the fact they can get greater control and maintain their systems to a higher standard,” says Dave Gilpin, chief strategy officer at the vendor. “With disaster recovery (DR), if our clients recover to physical desks they don’t always provide assets to back office users. With this solution, if those people have laptops, or a PC at home with broadband, they could use a virtualised version of what you have in our fixed site.” SunGard has enhanced its offerings in this area through a partnership with virtualisation specialist Virtual Age. Gilpin says several financial sector clients are running Beta tests now. But for all the efficiencies it might create, VDI is costly initially. Only if a company already has a certain level of server virtualisation and the right data centre and networking resources in place does it immediately win people over on cost grounds alone.

Security and compliance
“In my experience in financial services it’s all about security and control,” says Alex McLoughlin, director at Virtual Age. Not only is maintaining desktop security easier, cheaper and faster than if the company has to manage hundreds or thousands of individual PCs, but the scope for user behaviour to create security issues, whether by accident or not, is also greatly reduced - they can’t plug in USB devices any more, for example. It can also be easier to comply with regulatory demands using a VDI architecture, than it is in a distributed PC-based environment.

The new breed of virtualised desktop solutions also boast improved display protocols, such as VMware’s PCoIP, which enhances the user experience to the point where it becomes easier to imagine the technology being used in high demand applications such as those found on the trading floor. Red Hat makes similar claims for its Spice protocol.

VDI vendors have also focused more attention on the need to build in a degree of interoperability with other solutions. “We’re seeing some grown-up behaviour from the vendors, realising they need to plan together,” says Matt Mould, VDI practice consultant at EMC Consulting.

Case studies
So where is VDI being used? Earlier this year, Chris Edmonds, a managing director at Morgan Stanley gave a presentation at our FST Live event in March (see website for more) about the bank’s VDI adoption programme, which will run until all the bank’s desktops – perhaps as many as 100,000 – are virtual. This is ambitious, but the bank has settled on a standard build, using Citrix Xen and Windows 7, running on VMware and NetApp for storage and replication and more than 700 users are already working with virtual desktops.

“Just about everyone is thinking about it or looking at it,” says Andy Soanes, director, platform services, at Glasshouse Technologies. “A lot of our engagements are still people asking what it can do, but we’re seeing an adoption for back office functions in the financial sector.” He says migration to Windows 7 is often a catalyst.

Chris Hammans, vice-president, EMEA, at US ‘zero client’ VDI specialist, Pano Logic, is leading his company’s charge into Europe and beyond. The company currently has about 350 customers worldwide, including between 50 and 60 in EMEA and “double that number going through a proof of concept stage”.

Hammans’ hopes to be able to speak in more detail soon about one particular UK client, a start-up fund management business based in the City and employing about 40 people. “We got involved with them about four months ago,” he says. “I can’t give precise details yet but they are looking at building a global office from scratch. Uptime and speed are very important to them. They don’t need the complexity of the PC on someone’s desk, but do want its power and versatility. They met us, did a proof of concept and were very pleased with the results. Their users will now be using a unit on their desk and running intensive analytical applications out of their data centre. They intend to grow to about 120 people this year and have just the one IT manager dealing with the lot. They can do that because everything is centralised.

“Security has been one of the side benefits that people don’t look at in the first instance,” he continues. “In this case, the fund management business didn’t want to take any risks with the data they were using. With a thin client or a PC you’ve got all the complexity of locking that down. With our zero client approach you have no operating system on the machine, no moving parts.”

Standard Bank
Another financial company which seems highly satisfied with VDI is Standard Bank, on record as suggesting it saves £400,000 per year through virtualisation of its desktops and servers. A major server consolidation programme proved the financial benefits of virtualisation to senior management, but it was a move to new, environmentally sustainable offices in Gresham Street, in central London, that led to an investment in desktop virtualisation.

“The new building already had air conditioning fitted and specified for one person, per ten square metres – and we needed it to be one person, per seven square metres,” explains Joel King, infrastructure architect at Standard Bank. The bank could either spend a six figure sum replacing the air conditioning, or look for a new way of reducing the heat generated by its IT systems. “So we started looking at VDI. It was a fairly young technology at the time, but it suited our needs in terms of management and flexibility.

“We didn’t just virtualise the desktops, there were the applications, we had to centralise all the users’ data - we wanted the environment to be as flexible as possible. There were lots of different technologies involved and we did have some teething problems, but the few issues we did have, Wyse [which provided virtualisation software alongside VMware] and VMware dealt with very efficiently,” adds King.

The project began in the summer of 2008, with six months of planning and testing, followed by a six month piloting period before full deployment in July 2009. It is the largest VDI deployment in Europe, they believe [Morgan Stanley might contest this], with more than 700 users at the moment. “Our target was 70 per cent of the user base on the system first - not traders, laptop users or developers,” says King. “We actually hit about 80 per cent; and we would have got more on there if we’d had more time. So now we’re looking at moving more of those users across.” Ultimately, this will include the bank’s traders, using the VMware PCoIP protocol. The bank is also considering whether VDI might be deployed in some form for its developers, although this remains a tougher task.

“What we’ve done in London is really the blueprint,” says King. “Now we’ve seen it can be successful there’s a push to get the technology into our other offices. We’re now pushing it out to Sao Paulo, Brazil, where we’re about to deploy VDI, moving 200 users onto it; in Argentina we’re moving 1,000 users over to VDI.”

Not everyone will ever emulate that pattern of adoption. Glasshouse’s Soanes says in his experience VDI is usually most effective alongside a mix of additional virtualisation projects, particularly application virtualisation and some retained physical elements. “We refer to this whole subject as user workspaces – there may be a mix of virtual and physical,” he explains. The decision may be the result of corporate changes too: “With one customer their approach to a merger is to deliver a VDI desktop as standard as a quick win, then go through an assessment to see if the workload should go onto a physical device,” Soanes explains.

Data centre impact
But whatever the reasoning behind a move to VDI there is one factor to consider above all: the data centre and the network have to be up to the job. Workload management tools, such as those provided by Platform Computing, may be of use in these situations. More demand will be placed on your data centre and centralised hub so you have to prepare appropriately.

Moving to VDI isn’t like waving a magic wand. It requires careful planning that takes into account the different requirements of different types of user. But get that planning right and this really could be a valuable technology that could be used in various roles across any financial institution. “Today we have no barriers for banking or insurance,” says VMware’s Dick. “Our product works in all departments.”

Glasshouse’s Soanes believes application virtualisation will play just as important a role in the march of the virtual machines. “We’ll see more adoption of that before we get VDI adoption across the board,” he says. “But VDI will make major inroads into traditional desktop computing. We will see more and more adoption.”

At the moment though it’s generally pilots or small scale projects being undertaken, with the honourable exceptions of Morgan Stanley and Standard Bank. Before other major VDI rollouts are launched, or even considered, you should ensure there is enough spare capacity in your data centre to cope, optimising it if need be, and a good enough cabling system
and DR process to enable fast speeds and a smooth operation. Be in no doubt rolling out VDI will have impacts further down the line.

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