4 tips for a smooth zero-client migration

Pay attention to storage, the network and how the desktops are configured. And don't forget to educate the users, experts say.

Migrating to a virtual desktop environment that supports thin- or zero-client technology offers numerous benefits, including power savings, improved security and reduced maintenance and support costs. But as with all IT deployments, there are challenges. Officials with the Energy Department’s Hanford Site offer some tips from a conversion of physical workstations to virtual, thin-client desktops.

More info

Zero clients are the bomb at Energy's massive Hanford site

The Hanford Federal Community Cloud is the foundation for virtual desktop/zero-client environment that boosts security and cuts power use on the 586-square-mile complex. Read more.

1. Pay attention to storage. The infrastructure folks are going to have to look at the type of storage the zero-client desktop environment is sitting on — its speed, scalability and whether it is structured or unstructured storage, said Todd Eckman, vice president of Mission Support Alliance, a company set up to assist DOE with the cleanup of toxic waste at the Hanford site. Storage often is a bottleneck, bogging down performance in virtual desktop environments, especially as more users are added to a network. DOE Hanford uses NetApp’s FlexPod, now deployed for the Hanford Federal Community Cloud, which helps detect potential issues.

2. Make sure the network is solid. In the same vein as storage, “you have to make sure you have a good solid network because those thin clients are dependent on reliable transport back to your data centers,” Eckman said. Hanford officials are using VMware View, which supports PC over IP technology that compresses, encrypts and encodes the entire computing experience at the data center and transmits it “pixels only” across any standard IP network to zero-client desktops. “We have used thin-client technology in locations that have had low-bandwidth because of the PC over IP technology,” Eckman said. The fact that you are not processing the information or sending it back and forth to the workstation makes it suitable for low bandwidth areas. The bandwidth just needs to be reliable, he said.

3. Decide how the desktop will be configured. “Another big decision is how you are going to treat the desktops,” said Benjamin Ellison, CIO of Energy’s Richland Operations Office and Office of River Protection, which oversees the cleanup projects. The Hanford  site uses a pool concept. There are no specific instances for users, so when they log in they are tapping into a desktop from a pool of desktops, and every user sees the same desktop. The users’ profiles are portable. Some configurations give very specific desktop instances for people, but “we opted for the pool for various reasons having to do with the storage and management,” Ellison said.

4. Educate users about performance issues. Users often blame newly implemented technology for performance issues that might crop up. In Hanford’s case, officials moved users to zero clients at the same time they were also transitioning from Microsoft Windows XP to Windows 7, Ellison noted.  “People began to tie the thin client to challenges they were having with the new operating systems,” he said. But some of the problems could have been attributable to Windows 7 and not to the hardware. So you have to be careful not to pin all the challenges users are having on the client, he said. Similar complaints surfaced with the move of 12,000 users to voice over IP. Any technical issue that came up during the migration was a VOIP problem in the eyes of the users. To quiet these concerns requires communication and managing the users’ expectations, the Hanford officials noted.

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