City of Pittsburgh's IT success and the beneficial synergy between virtualized servers and desktops

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod and Podcast.com. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: VMware.

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ur next VMworld case study interview focuses on the City of Pittsburgh’s Information Systems organization and how they’ve deeply embraced virtualization at the server level and now increasingly at the desktop level. We’ll see how critical city services in Pittsburgh are being supported using VMware View 4.6 and the new View 5.0 version and how the beneficial synergy between virtualized servers and desktops is shaping up.

This story comes as part of a special BriefingsDirect podcast series from the VMworld 2011 Conference in Las Vegas the week of August 29. The series explores the latest in cloud computing and virtualization infrastructure developments.

Here to share his story on bringing VDI to his employees is Alex Musicante, the System Security Architect in the City Information Systems department in Pittsburgh. The discussion is moderated by Dana Gardner, Principal Analyst at Interarbor Solutions. [Disclosure: VMware is a sponsor of BriefingsDirect podcasts.]

Here are some excerpts:

Gardner: Your environment is almost 100 percent virtualized on the server side. First, why is there such a holistic embrace, and how has that provided the confidence for you to move now aggressively into the desktop virtualization space as well?

Musicante: The City of Pittsburgh decided to embrace virtualization five years or so ago, and we did this in a development environment with VMware. The confidence was not there for the server virtualization, and we decided it's a good place to offer development to our internal engineers.

From there, we kept building and building, and we decided to put our first production system on there. Without a problem, everything started going. What virtualization had to offer for us was higher availability, higher reliability.

When we were remote, we had full console access. We were able to offer higher reliability on our development than our production. That was what led us to go to production. It's very difficult in this day and age with budgets and all that. We're now doing more with less. In order to be able to accommodate that and be able to handle the increased workload with fewer people, it has been embracing server virtualization, and virtualization in general.

In server virtualization we currently have 16 hosts, 98 percent virtual. There are about 250 or so virtual machines (VMs) between two data centers; and we are using VMware Site Recovery Manager to replicate or to bring up the replicated site in the event of a disaster or any planned maintenance that we need to perform at one data center versus the other.

Gardner: I’d like to hear more about your desktop virtualization strategy, but let's learn a little bit more about the scope and scale of your mission-critical set of services.

Musicante: The City of Pittsburgh’s City Information Systems Department, which I work for, has about 3,000 users that they support. That ranges from all public safety -- Police, Fire, EMS, and Building Inspection -- to the branches of government -- the Mayor’s Office, the City Council, and Controller’s Office as well as other important departments like the Finance Department, Personnel, Human Resources, and Parks and Recreation. That's who we're supporting, and each and every one of them has their own little caveats of technology that they need.

Gardner: You’re also of course concerned about security, performance, disaster recovery, which you’ve already mentioned. How has virtualization helped you not just in cutting cost, but in making these more hardened, more resilient services?

Musicante: In terms of hardening and security, when we took our virtualization approach, we started out by saying that we were going to physical-to-virtual (P2V) and migrate a lot of these machines. As we proceeded and matured in that environment, we decided that we were going to build fresh and build new.

So when we did our server virtualization, we looked at virtualization in general. It became an opportunity for us to evaluate how we were going to harden things, how we were going to secure things, and since now we don’t have to support that many physical servers, we can expand on our current capacity, and hardware.

We’re able to separate things, where servers that were multi-functional servers, database server, file server, web server, all in one, now get to be three different servers, and only allow communications to the specific application and supports what they need.

Gardner: Any issues around storage? Has that been something that you’ve been able to wreak some efficiencies out as well?

Musicante: Storage was very interesting for the City of Pittsburgh. They were coming from an environment where everything was on direct-attached storage (DAS), and going to a storage area network (SAN) environment, which they had. They had an array with an HP 6000, but they were only using 500 gigabytes at the time. So storage transition was huge in terms of reliability, but as well as cost at the same time.

It was an unexpected thing from the city’s perspective, as they were not in the market for an array where everything is central. It was all individual and unique to each host and physical server. So storage came about and offered a lot more flexibility and a lot of benefit to the City of Pittsburgh, but it was not without hassle.

Gardner: So you’ve gone through that process -- 98 percent is very impressive on your server, and your infrastructure. What prompted you to now take the additional step to use VMware View and move into desktop virtualization?

Musicante: The City of Pittsburgh moved into desktop virtualization with very similar characteristics as we looked at the server virtualization as how can we offer higher reliability and higher support, give us more management from a central standpoint back at our remote offices, and offer them to the clients and given them the same if not a better level service for additional benefits from administrative.

Security provisioning

There were a bunch of reasons, and those are like pushing out software updates without downtime for the users. They just log off and get a new one. It was security provisioning software, keeping all the storage and everything is back in our data center, so nothing leaves the facility.

Those were motivating factors as well as keeping administrative cost down. That was the push, and it actually took off. It took some time, but it's being embraced more than I ever would have thought it would have been.

Gardner: Let's learn a little bit more about the nature of your distribution requirements. Obviously, you have City Hall. You’ve got some centralization. You’ve got police headquarters and fire headquarters, but you’ve also got a lot of distributed sites around the city. So let us better understand your distribution requirements when you’re going to desktop virtualization?

Musicante: There are 175 remote facilities, and they range from connectivity of facilities that are on dark fiber, with 100, 200, 300, 500 users, to these individual remote offices that are located in the park facility, and they have one or two employees that are coming across the DSL line.

One of the major complaints was the problem with connectivity where people are on DSL. They would load the roaming profile or pull documents or upload files and they would see this huge lag where it took them upwards of 30 minutes to start their day off. They're now able to go into View, sign-in, and they're in. So we pretty much recovered 30 extra minutes for some of these employees on a daily basis.

Gardner: How are you leveraging the PCoIP bandwidth improvements for the WAN?

Musicante: Very well. With each version it's definitely gotten better. Still from a management side we do maintain an IPSec tunnel to all of our facilities.

So PC-over-IP has been what we’ve been using for our remote facilities, even back in the 3.0 days. When 4.1 PC-over-IP came out, 4.5, 4.6, it's been progressively getting better and has higher availability with more response. When 4.6, matured, they gave us the View Security Server, and even now with 5, it has increased and lowered the actual requirements necessary for traffic. So some of our facilities are not feeling the same same pain that they were prior to.

Gardner: As you’ve been making this transition, it would be good to understand better how you’ve adopted version 5. To what degree are you using version 5 for View on your desktop virtualization installations?

Musicante: Currently, we're in a mixed mode. We have two environments which we're trying to expedite to move off of, but we currently have a 4.6 environment and a 5.0 environment. Right now with our 5.0 environment we are embracing Persona Management for some of our EMS employees.

Gardner: That’s another one of those ancillary benefits that people don’t always appreciate but it’s pretty important.

Everything is identical

Musicante: Absolutely. It wasn’t something that we were expecting, but at the same time, when we go back with 20/20 hindsight, we reevaluated and said that that makes sense. Everything is now identical. We use non-persistent machine. So every time they log in, it's a brand-new machine and it’s configured identically the way we want it. The only factor that’s different for each user is their profile.

Gardner: You know how to resolve them, it’s not starting from scratch.

Musicante: Absolutely not starting from scratch. That’s also one of the beautiful benefits. As we move and as we mature with the product and as the product matures itself, we seem to be taking a very parallel progression between the two -- the City of Pittsburgh and VMware View. Persona Management right now has been doing wonders for that.

Those departments that have migrated over and wanted to take this “experiment” of Persona Management have been pleasantly surprised. Definitely, that’s also a point to bring up. When you hear problems from people, when end-users complain, there’s always something that they target. It was networking at one point. Then it moved on to virtualization and everyone said it was the promised virtualization, whether it was or wasn’t.

With View, it actually stands alone. It an outlier. Our users call and they say, "I would like to be on View. I would like to be on that system." For an end-user come back to us and request that blows our mind. We appreciate it. It means we’ve done something right. And it also has to be attributed back to VMware. They’ve done something right.

Gardner: Now that you’ve gotten your feet wet, and then some, with 5.0, what are some of the other salient benefits?

Musicante: That’s going to give us extra 5 percent. There is always that server virtualization where you’d only get that 95 percent, although we got past that. There’s that 5 percent that you couldn’t for or you wouldn’t for whatever reason. That’s the same market for the desktop virtualization and 5 percent was for high graphic intensive people. We're able to now start to achieve that and we're looking to try to achieve that.

We've not gone through some of the advanced 3D accelerated graphic things that are now out with 5. We are in the process of testing, but it’s currently in our test labs within our department. It’s also in terms of deriving the benefit. We have all of our infrastructure. We're going to with a more green approach. So we're going with zero client. They're currently Dell FX 100s. So they may take one tenth of the power, but there is very little there.

I know that VMware View 5.0 3D acceleration is going to be there and is going to help out, but those people are going to be using the repurposed machines, taking their machine, putting a stripped down version of 7 and use it from there. So we're trying to achieve that, but it’s multiple facets.

Gardner: When we think about your adoption pattern around virtualization, you took your time, learned through your development environment, walked in, made some progress and then really ramped up on adoption for your server side. You’ve followed a similar pattern now with desktops.

What’s next? Is there an additional synergy between a private cloud implementation, where you can get even better synergy efficiency? Tell me what you think about this fear and moving towards even higher plane of efficiency and productivity on that overall delivery from a central data center environment?

Going toward the cloud

Musicante: It’s really unclear where we're going to go. As far as cloud and where the cloud is taking the City of Pittsburgh and where the City of Pittsburgh is going with cloud, City of Pittsburgh currently is in the process of taking that last two percent of our system that isn’t virtualized, which is Exchange, and we are currently in the process of going towards the cloud. So it’s actually going to be going to Google Apps for government for mail.

As far as cloud within ourselves, the City of Pittsburgh is using its resources that we’ve regained or recouped from all of our consolidation purposes, especially with the government processes and mentality of doing more with less. There is a lot of fellow government agencies that we're now going to be partnering with to provide them infrastructure as a service.

That’s where some of the other product lines come in like vCloud Director, to be able to allow them to still manage their infrastructure to use our resources, and we can now ourselves be a cloud provider, which I have been marketing as Cloud9 because there are nine entities including the City of Pittsburgh -- nine entities that we are going to consolidate.

Gardner: I'm impressed with the fact that you’ve been able to move through this progression, recoup those savings, and then apply it to the innovation that get you yet more productivity and savings that you can further apply. That’s commendable. Any words of advice for folks that are perhaps not as far along as you’ve been on this progression? What 20/20 hindsight and words of wisdom might you supply them?

Musicante: With server virtualization, everyone is involved in it, and that is the easy part. Desktop virtualization, is where we got hit hard and the lessons that will be learned is that end-user’s matter. Every step of the way, you need their input. It’s not just an administrative decision saying this is the right thing. You need to be good at psychology to convince your users that this is what they want, and getting them to the point of seeing that this is the best approach or getting their input.

That really makes all the difference in the world. You’ll have the same end result and you’ll get to the same target, to the same place, but you need their input. It was not the same with server virtualization. That was for the administrators. They owned it. It was their territory. These desktops that you're taking from the users, yes, they’ll have a better reliability, better up-time, better everything, and better end-user experience, but they feel that that’s theirs, and rightly so.

The only thing that I could say is to involve your users. Get them in the proof of concept from the beginning. Get their input, what they need, what they want, how they want to access it, and with that it’ll no doubt be a sure success.

Listen to the podcast. Find it on iTunes/iPod and Podcast.com. Read a full transcript or download a copy. Sponsor: VMware.

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About the Author
Dana Gardner is president and principal analyst at Interarbor Solutions, an enterprise IT analysis, market research, and consulting firm. Ga...


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