Sandia’s VDI finds a good fit with hyperconverged infrastructure

Sandia’s VDI finds a good fit with hyperconverged infrastructure

Sandia National Laboratories supports 12,000 users and 30,000 endpoints, which can complicate efforts to manage applications and infrastructure. To simplify things, lab officials began to look for a better way to deliver desktops to users, and decided to try virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).

The first few attempts hit problems, primarily with storage, said Nicole Ballard, the Albuquerque-based labs’ service manager. After trying a three-tiered infrastructure using a blade system and attached storage, the labs then tried rack-mount server-based technology with separate storage. Last year, however, the Energy Department agency found the right fit with a hyperconverged infrastructure.

A hyperconverged infrastructure is a software-centric architecture that puts compute, storage, networking and virtualization technologies into a single appliance.

“We were looking for something that was simple and easy, something that would really allow my team to concentrate on what I felt were the most important things -- which were the user experience, getting our desktop solution to the right place,” Ballard said. “This new infrastructure really allows… my team to concentrate on the desktop itself -- and not so much on the infrastructure -- because it’s really easy to set up and deploy.”

Sandia replaced its hodgepodge of solutions from myriad vendors with a single Nutanix block, which sits inside its data center. It started with 100 users and scaled out as existing systems ended their lifecycles, or as more funding allowed. As the labs added more blocks to cover more users, Ballard’s team was able to cluster them together, seamlessly multiplying their power.

Dave Gwyn, vice president of Nutanix’s federal division, said the Sandia deployment showed how customers can customize their acquisitions -- if they need storage more than they need additional compute power, they can opt for a model that offers more storage but still integrates with already-implemented blocks.

“You can look at it as an iPhone is to us now,” Gwyn said of hyperconvergence. Ten years ago, he explained, people had a flip phone, a portable GPS suction-cupped to their windshield, a laptop for checking email and an iPod for music.  “Now that we have an iPhone, all that stuff is done in a single device,” he said. One interface manages all the apps so users don’t need to navigate all those different platforms.

For the Sandia users, the zero client on their desktops is little more than a broadcast-receiving device with which they can interact using mice and keyboards. Almost no data is contained on it, increasing cybersecurity for the labs.

The agency already had VMware Horizon View in place as its VDI broker, and added Unidesk’s software-layering capabilities. This separates the core of the operating system from the persona, Gwyn said, enabling users to see their own wallpaper, bookmarks and files in My Documents folders. When users log on each morning, they get a brand-new desktop image – a clean slate, he added.

“They ultimately get what looks like the same desktop they had yesterday, but the cool thing is if they had inadvertently downloaded a virus yesterday, today that’s all gone,” Gwyn said.

Less than two weeks passed from the time Nutanix got the first order until the technology was deployed, and the installation and migration of users took about three hours, he said. “The reason people acquire VDI generally is that it’s better for securing data at rest, it’s easier to implement patching,” Gwyn noted. For instance, having to physically go to each desktop in a 12,000-user organization such as Sandia to apply new patches is time consuming and costly. Now, everything gets patched at once from one place.

Today, Sandia has some 1,500 users on VDI. Participation is voluntary, and departments that sign up pay a monthly fee that helps the labs recoup costs, Ballard said. Not everyone is a good candidate for VDI, she added. For example, the current solution would not offer enough support for graphics-intensive applications.

Looking ahead, Ballard said she would like to see 7,000 to 8,000 users on VDI with at least one of their desktop computers. “That would be my goal within the next five years.”

Virtualization is resonating with Sandia, it seems. This year, Ballad expects to start conversations with agency leaders about setting a “virtual first” policy as a result of the success with the VDI deployment. Ballard’s team is also considering using VMware NSX for network virtualization and looking at letting users access only the applications they need from mobile devices as opposed to going through a virtual desktop to get to them.

About the Author

Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.

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