Centralized computing catches fire with lower costs, easier maintenance, better security

Centrally Controlled, Managed Client Computing Gains a Government Foothold

Client computing has evolved as federal agencies struggle to rein in costs and gain greater control over all aspects of IT while simultaneously allowing employees to access government networks from any location, using a variety of devices.

Agencies are gaining experience delivering desktop computer functions — such as running and storing software, data and personal settings — from servers safely housed in a data center. As they gain greater centralized control and easier management of client systems, they can allow users greater access to networks and other resources for continuity of operations, telework, and greater overall mobility and productivity.

Indications are that 2011 marks a turning point, industry observers say, as federal, state and local government organizations are increasingly revamping formerly decentralized traditional PC-based client computing to embrace more modern IT delivery models. The goal is to gain greater management control over those PCs and other devices, enabling agencies to securely provide remote access to government networks and information resources.

The Gartner Group, for example, predicts the worldwide market for hosted virtual desktops will likely expand from $1.5 billion in 2009 to more than $65 billion in 2013.

According to quarterly surveys conducted by Info-Tech Research Group, 2011 will likely be a year of mass adoption. In the first quarter of 2009, 40 percent of survey respondents said they were planning, pilot testing, implementing or had fully deployed client virtualization solutions. By the fourth quarter of 2010, more than 70 percent of respondents were considering or implementing some form of client virtualization.

The reason is that “over time, organizations have come to understand that, unlike server virtualization, the real savings associated with client virtualization comes from reductions in the total cost of ownership of client systems and other significant operational benefits, such as improved centralized control and security,” said Laura Hansen-Kohls, senior research analyst at Info-Tech Research Group.

The latest generation of client computing aligns well with far-flung organizational structures common to government enterprises, particularly in federal and large local government organizations but also in many small municipalities.

No matter whether government organizations are working to secure sensitive information, boost emergency preparedness, standardize systems and applications to achieve Federal Desktop Core Configuration compliance, or enhance remote access to allow users greater mobility and meet requirements of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, a more modern form of client computing is taking hold government-wide.

The U.S. Agency for International Development, for example, is investing in a cloud-based virtual desktop infrastructure that will provide IT services for users who work for the agency around the world.

Compelling benefits

Agencies such as USAID and others have found that this new form of client computing can help overcome hefty IT security challenges and allow them to more easily maintain control and consistency across PCs agency-wide.

In a nutshell, the biggest long-term source of potential savings comes from operations and maintenance. Many organizations pursue client virtualization because they have realized significant savings with their server virtualization initiative. “However, the benefits of client virtualization are primarily found in improved, simplified software management and deployment and increased security of data,” Hansen-Kohls said.

In traditional decentralized client computing environments, the IT team often must install and update applications on each PC. Troubleshooting must be done separately for each computer, necessitating a desk-side visit from tech support. Research firm IDC estimates that the total cost of managing a PC can be as much as $1,000 per year or more. In even a small government office, it’s easy to see how support can eat up as much as 80 percent of the IT budget, said Dan Griggs, virtualization solution architect at CDW Government.

In a virtualized client computing scenario, because operating systems and software reside on a central server, any updates and patches can be installed once and then appear immediately to all users on the network. This way, “IT can more effectively monitor, quarantine and combat viruses, malware and other attacks,” Griggs explained.

If problems occur, machines can be fixed, rebooted or taken off-line remotely, requiring far fewer visits by IT support staff, CDW-G officials report. In large agency environments with multiple locations and buildings, the move to client virtualization can also lead to a drop in travel expenses for major application deployments and upgrades. Meanwhile, according to CDW-G’s research, new users can be set up with computer access and services in minutes, not days. Because user files reside centrally, backups can be set to take place automatically, minimizing the risk of data loss from failed hard drives or inadvertent user errors. This also allows for a quicker recovery point objective if a disaster strikes.

At the same time, with network perimeters extending beyond the edge of an organization’s property, IT security remains an important priority. Mobile users, combined with the very public location of systems in many agencies, only serve to heighten security demands. Security is greatly enhanced by moving to virtual clients because the devices that users work on do not store data. The files remain secure in data centers. That way, lost or stolen devices cannot jeopardize sensitive information. “Because of this combination of lower maintenance costs, improved user portability and increased security, desktop virtualization is catching on in a big way,” Griggs said.

Challenges and futures

Although centralizing management of the desktop improves data security and increases flexibility for users, it’s important to be realistic about costs. “Cost reduction doesn’t match or come close to server virtualization,” Hansen-Kohls said.

Some organizations are using the new form of client computing as a steppingstone to the cloud, industry observers say. “As customers gain experience with delivering desktop functionality as a service, it's easier to grasp the concept of moving in this direction,” Griggs said.

Storage issues are creating another challenge for organizations. Many find that they must invest in a storage-area network because of the random, variable storage requirements brought on by boot storms that occur when almost all users are signing on to systems at the start of each work day, for example. In some cases, organizations are turning to additional storage solutions, such as solid-state disks, Hansen-Kohls said, but those only add to the capital expense punch. “We are fortunately moving into a phase in which industry suppliers are seeking to resolve storage challenges using virtual storage solutions, for example, to help lower the costs and improve performance,” she added.

Critical bottlenecks in the delivery of virtual clients from servers, mostly involving server input/output and network bandwidth, are becoming the new challenge and must be weighed into the decision to modernize client computing, especially in organizations that are scaling out to more than 1,000 users, she explained.

At the same time, industry observers say, all organizations must focus on delivering a personal computing experience at least on par with users’ old PCs to maintain user satisfaction and ensure broad adoption across the organization. “While interest in all forms of client virtualization is accelerating, the lack of a compelling return on investment makes it increasingly important to carefully consider appropriate use cases, total cost of ownership of traditional versus virtual desktop environments, and each organization's infrastructure requirements for deployment,” Hansen-Kohls said.

About this Report

This special report was commissioned by the Content Solutions unit, an independent editorial arm of 1105 Government Information Group. Specific topics are chosen in response to interest from the vendor community; however, sponsors are not guaranteed content contribution or review of content before publication. For more information about 1105 Government Information Group Content Solutions, please email us at [email protected]