When student loans collection agency Williams & Fudge decided four years ago to overhaul its IT infrastructure to support disaster recovery provisioning, following the advice of its technology partner eGroup Inc., it didn't foresee that the improvements -- moving its physical server infrastructure to a virtualized environment -- would set the stage for a full-fledged and successful VDI implementation. Today, two-thirds of the company's 400 employees use zero clients, or ultrathin clients, in a VMware View installation.
The Rock Hill, S.C., company, which caters to colleges and universities, presents almost the perfect use case for VDI: The majority of its workers are based in the call center and work on a shift basis. Call centers are a great use of VDI, according to experts, because they rely on task workers who generally don't require remote or mobile connections. They use a limited set of centralized business applications, with no need to save data locally.
In a very short period of time, they can ramp users up. … It's allowed them to grow very, very quickly.
sales consultant, eGroup
The VDI project has proven to be a lynchpin in Williams & Fudge's growth strategy. At the time of the implementation, the company had a very small IT staff and about 200 employees. "They effectively had two IT people who not only had to run the network, telephony, everything IT-related. They also had to [handle] help desk [chores]. They just couldn't get their jobs done," said Tal Lassiter, sales consultant for eGroup Inc., a regional IT solution provider based in Mt. Pleasant, S.C., about a three-hour drive from Williams & Fudge. "The owners did not want to expand IT staff counts at the time but were willing to invest in infrastructure if we could show them how to do that. So we started talking to them about VDI."
"We did a proof of concept with eGroup's help and really saw that [VDI] was exactly what we needed to help our business grow but not really have to grow our IT department," said Phillip Reynolds, Williams & Fudge's IT director.
The VMware View installation has made for a more agile IT department. Its ratio of IT staff to employees is almost 1-to-200. "[It] has enabled [Williams & Fudge] to take on commercial contracts, more universities and colleges or big government contracts," Lassiter said. "In a very short period of time, they can ramp users up, and all they have to do is add disk, maybe add a host on the virtualization side, and then add thin clients. … It's allowed them to grow very, very quickly."
The VDI project also dovetailed nicely with Williams & Fudge's compliance efforts, which had escalated as the company began partnering with larger financial institutions. "From a compliance standpoint, VDI … was a way to check the box on 60% of the compliance requirements [and] to solve some of those problems that are inherent in a client/server-type network, where you have a distributed data set," Lassiter said.
Reynolds said that users who have made the transition to the zero client are happy with the move. The company had a slow hardware refresh cycle, and so many users were on old desktop computers, some as old as five or six years, Reynolds said. Login times were lengthy -- anywhere from one-and-a-half minutes to more than three minutes. With VDI and zero clients accessing operating systems on the SAN, logins are typically less than 30 seconds, Lassiter said.
Williams & Fudge has avoided the problem of boot storms -- which have crippled many VDI implementations, with a bottleneck for system resources slowing user logins to unacceptable levels -- through a strategy that favors locked-down, nonpersistent desktops for most users, and SSD to produce enough IOPS to support the required access to storage resources. With non-persistent desktops, Williams & Fudge users can't change settings, although they can save documents temporarily, according to Reynolds.
The company has an EMC VNX 5500 SAN in place at its main data center, with EMC FAST (Fully Automated Storage Tiering) technology for caching and tiering, and separate sets of SSD to support each of those storage efficiency functions. It also uses three additional SSD drives, each supporting the base images used for Williams & Fudge's three user configurations: one based on Windows XP for call center employees; another based on Windows 7 for call center employees; and a third based on Window 7 for sales, client support staff and team leads. (The IT department is in the process of migrating call center employees from Windows XP to Windows 7.)
Lassiter explained the benefit of the EMC system: "They were the first in the market where you could use flash drives in two ways: for tiering and for caching. You were able to buy a midmarket tier SAN from EMC and then apply flash drives to extend the cache that's traditionally limited in an array."
Williams & Fudge uses VMware View Persona Management to manage user profiles. View Persona Management preserves profiles and syncs them with the central profile repository. At desktop startup, it downloads only the files that Windows requires for login. As other applications or files are requested, View Persona Management copies them from the stored user profile to the View desktop. With it, "the desktop doesn't have to wait on the profile to load before it loads into your desktop," Reynolds said. "It actually copies over data in the background as your desktop is loading, and as you're getting to work, it's still loading some of your data to the desktop temporarily."
In all, Williams & Fudge's VDI project has been a big success. The company is looking into other business opportunities that would involve additional expansion of call center staff and further buildout of the VDI environment.
As for eGroup's involvement, the solution provider helped orchestrate a major technology transformation at Williams & Fudge, starting with its recommendation to implement virtual servers in 2009. "EGroup was involved every step of the way," Reynolds said. "They guided us down the right path and then helped us design, config, purchase, and then come back and install, configure and manage. Before, during and after the whole process, they were subject matter experts for our data center solutions, for our network solutions and for our VDI solutions."
This was first published in September 2013