Struggling with sluggish VDI? Try graphics acceleration

The City of Round Rock, Texas, employs 850 people to serve a population of 100,000. Our city covers a wide area just outside of Austin that, while beautiful, often impairs employee productivity. For example, repairing a computer on the far side of town requires IT to drive to that location, retrieve the workstation, and return to the office for diagnosis and repair before making a second trip to return that computer to its user. This model, plus the inherent risks of storing data on local computers with inconsistent backups, poses significant costs and risks to the entire city government.

Training was another issue. The Round Rock fire department streams training videos because the nature of their shifts makes it difficult to assemble everyone for live training sessions. Yet until recently, each fire station had two or three desktop computers shared by all of the firefighters.

Our IT department realized that these challenges lent themselves to a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) deployment where centralized servers host and run applications, render graphics and send the resulting pixel data to users at remote locations. Employees access these servers from any desktop, laptop or mobile device that has the appropriate portal client installed on it.  They can use just about any local or cellular network, and receive full Windows desktops. The devices act as terminals, and the end user experience is largely identical no matter what device they are using to access the servers.

Applications, from general office tools to streaming video and high-end 2D and 3D graphics and modeling tools, benefit from graphics acceleration that uses a dedicated graphics processing unit (GPU) and frees the CPU to run the applications. However, legacy remote-access protocols do not include GPU support, and therefore pass graphics tasks to the CPU. This consumes excessive CPU cycles, which degrades graphics speed and quality.

We implemented VDI without GPU support and immediately started hearing complaints about jerky video playback, poor quality and intermittent audio. IT eked out marginal performance improvements by disabling all desktop interface enhancements, which delivered an antiquated user experience. VDI gave us remote access, BYOD readiness, ease of management, standardized application/desktop images and data security.  But the video playback and interface problems spurred us to explore ways to optimize the graphics.

Adding graphics acceleration immediately improved performance across the board. Users reported virtual desktop performance equal to or better than their existing computers. Our new VDI consists of five servers with a single NVIDIA GRID K1 card per server, running a total of 300 virtual machines. Each graphics card uses NVIDIA GRID vGPU technology to share each physical GPU among multiple virtual desktops, and each card supports up to 25-30 concurrent and 60 total users. Users currently receive Windows 7 desktops, and we are in the process of rolling out Windows 8.1.

Migrating from PCs to VDI with graphics acceleration gives local governments several long-term advantages. First, VDI requires less IT overhead. At Round Rock, one person manages the entire VDI. We use three more people to manage the remaining workstations spread across the city.

Second, VDI lets us store data in the datacenter where we can secure it and protect it against disasters. Storing data on local drives risks losing the data itself, the investment in obtaining that data and the historical value of retaining that data for ongoing use.

Third, most city employees now use low-cost thin clients to access the VDI. The police and park departments use tablets to access virtual desktops for filing forms and reports from the field without having to return to the office to use a computer. Users love the performance, along with not having to commute back and forth to do their work, especially in the evening or on weekends. This high level of mobility also allows employees to use their own devices to access the network, which makes them more productive while saving money.

Overall, the initial cost of deploying VDI at Round Rock was a wash compared to desktop PCs, but we expect to see significant long-terms savings, along with happier and more productive city employees. Today, approximately 80 percent of the virtual desktops at Round Rock include graphics acceleration, and that percentage will grow over time. Going forward, our VDI deployment is ready to support more remote and telecommuting employees. Meanwhile, our IT department is continuing to find new ways to leverage accelerated virtual desktops to increase the value of this investment even further.

About the Author

Heath Douglas is the IT director of the City of Round Rock, Texas.

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