More organizations virtualize computer stations, enabling users to access software remotely
By CHUCK SODER
4:30 am, January 10, 2011
(Reprinted with Author’s permission)
Most of the employees who will populate the new University Hospitals Ahuja Medical Center will work on computers shaped like tissue boxes.
They won’t be alone: A growing number of companies and organizations in Northeast Ohio are working to “virtualize” their desktops, and even more are thinking about it.
For University Hospitals, the Ahuja Medical Center is just the beginning. The hospital system plans to replace most of its personal computers with those “tissue boxes” — referred to as “thin client” computers — over the next few years, said Brad Chilton, chief technology officer in the hospital system’s information technology department.
Those thin clients don’t do much heavy lifting: Their main function is to serve as a connection between the user’s monitor and servers that run the software, including operating systems such as Windows.
University Hospitals wants to virtualize its desktops for many of the same reasons other companies and organizations cite. Desktop virtualization gave the hospital system a way to let employees access UH software on home computers, smart phones or even their iPads, which with special software can serve as a display for a Windows desktop running on a server. The technology also should help the hospital system save money on hardware and computer maintenance, Mr. Chilton said.
“Everything that can go wrong is really inside the data center,” he said.
Other organizations want to virtualize their desktops, too. More than half of the 70 information technology executives who participated in a survey conducted at the Northeast Ohio Software Association’s annual CIO Symposium in mid-November say they plan to virtualize in 2011.
Interest in desktop virtualization is on the rise partly because many companies are in the process of refreshing their computers, either because they delayed doing so during the recession or because they want to upgrade to Windows 7, said Jack Wilson, business director at virtualization services firm Dynamix Technology Inc. of Parma.
The iPad is a big driver, too: Many top executives already own the tablet computers, and now they want to use them to access the software their businesses use, Mr. Wilson said.
“That woke up the executives to what is possible,” he said. Goal: Be “hardware agnostic’
The popularity of the iPad and other consumer devices helped push Forest City Enterprises Inc. to begin running tests on desktop virtualization technology last year, said Bruce Garlitz, director of IT infrastructure for the Cleveland-based real estate giant.
Forest City is in the process of testing the technology with about 100 employees. If the pilot goes well, the company likely will virtualize most of its desktops in the second half of 2011. Then the company will have achieved its goal of becoming “hardware agnostic,” Mr. Garlitz said.
“Now, as an IT department, I don’t have to tell you, “I’m sorry, you have to use this. It’s all we support,’” he said.
Other factors also helped push Forest City to pursue desktop virtualization. The technology should save the company more than 10% on computer hardware if it replaces almost all its PCs, which cost more than thin clients and become obsolete sooner. In that scenario, the company also would save more than 40% on computer maintenance and support, Mr. Garlitz said. The savings are high because two-thirds of Forest City’s 3,000-plus employees work outside of its Cleveland headquarters.
“If I had a lot of people at one location I may use a different approach,” Mr. Garlitz said.
New York Community Bancorp Inc., the parent company of Cleveland-based Ohio Savings Bank, plans to start virtualizing its desktops in 2011 as well. Doing so will help it quickly deploy company software, which will be particularly useful as the bank acquires other companies, according to an e-mail statement from spokeswoman Ilene Angarola. The system also will make it easier for employees to work from home, she said.
The number of companies that already have virtualized their desktops is small but growing, said Lukasz Karapuda, sales engineer for OneLink Technical Services LLC of Westlake. In addition to the release of the iPad and Windows 7, improved desktop virtualization software also is driving the trend, Mr. Karapuda said.
“Almost everybody is open to this,” he said.
Large and midsize businesses are more likely to pull the trigger, though, given the cost of implementing the software and buying the necessary computing equipment, Mr. Karapuda said.
“For a small business there might be a hurdle as far as the up-front costs,” he said.
For Artisan Industries, however, there was more than enough reason to virtualize. The metalworking company in Streetsboro finished the process in mid-2010, said chief financial officer Ken Quinn.
Before virtualizing, Artisan’s remote offices in Cuyahoga Heights and Florida would connect to the company’s server in Streetsboro using older “terminal server” technology. Mr. Quinn said he wanted to throw the old system into a retention pond in front of the company’s headquarters: It let remote employees access software running in Streetsboro, but their connections were extremely slow and often would fail.
The new system is far better, even when running computer-aided design programs that need a lot of processing power, he said.
“It’s paid for itself already,” he said, adding that the company spent about $250,000 to make the switch.
The transition can cause problems, though. Companies that make the conversion need to remember to do plenty of training to prepare employees for the new system, said Mr. Chilton of UH’s IT department. Even if done right, it’s still hard to support new technology while phasing out old systems, he said.
Mr. Wilson, of Dynamix, said it’s particularly important for companies to virtualize as many of their PCs as possible. He cited his past experience as chief information officer at Amerisure Mutual Insurance Co.: The Farmington Hills, Mich., company not only had nine remote locations with their own PCs and servers, but also different departments had adopted various technologies over the year that made life complex for the IT department.
Virtualizing 100% of those computers removed the complexity, Mr. Wilson said. “If we had just done a piece it would be another layer of technology,” he said.