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VDI Prepares Sussex County, NJ, For Anything

Sussex County, NJ, built a cloud-based virtual desktop infrastructure for a mobile workforce. The project earned the organization a spot in the 2015 InformationWeek Elite 100.

Kosinetz said. "If you have an iPhone or Android phone, you can get to the desktop on a phone, as well. If you have just an Internet browser, like a Chromebook, you can get your desktop that way."

Putting desktops in the users' palms doesn't mean putting sensitive government and private data at risk, though. He said that the limited amount of data transferred between server and client is the key to security. "Only screen changes are passing over the Internet -- no information changes hand. All the transactions are taking place securely in the data center, away from the public Internet."

Simplified Management

When architectures change, staff requirements tend to change, as well. How many employees does Sussex County keep on staff to support the 1,200 users tapping into the virtual resources? Five. Kosentiz said that the architecture itself allows for the efficient staff-to-user ratio. "We can do it because that's the way this technology is designed. You have a master image of a desktop, say, Windows 7. You have one image, and we maintain that one image. Since we only have the one master copy, it's the only one we need to manage." 

[ Which is more secure, the cloud or your data center? Read Why Cloud Security Beats Your Data Center. ]

When business users are added, the staff simply clones the single master image. He admitted that not every user can rely solely on that master image: Some of the organization's units require specific applications or operating system configurations for their work. The IT group has several strategies it can employ, depending on how far from the master image a particular application strays.

"Some master images require some special applications, depending on the division or department, and we'd add that to the base image," Kosinetz said. "Most don't require that, so we virtualize the application. When you do that, you create an environment that's virtual within the application and not created within the base image. It's called a layering technology," he explained. "You have the OS and then the applications, and you lay them on top of the base image. You can create as many layers as you want within the image you deliver to the end-user."

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William Kosinetz, CIO of Sussex County, N.J.

Delivering operating systems and applications to users through virtual desktops pays off in ways that go beyond simplifying OS installations. Virtual operating systems cut down on automobile miles, too. "Instead of having to get into the car and drive out to the site, we can remotely see the desktop, so we don't have to go out and diagnose. We can diagnose here in the office," Kosinetz said. "We save so much time -- about 45% of the time now is focused on identifying the problem and fixing it, rather than going to the problem. Failure analysis is vastly accelerated."

Changes and the Future

With a virtual desktop infrastructure in place, he said that business processes are the next great focus of changes. He used the building inspector's office as an example of the kind of change the county and its municipalities are beginning to make. "You have a mobile workforce: A lot of the inspectors come into the office to get paperwork then go out to the job sites. Why do I have to warehouse workers?" he asked. The solution seems obvious.

"Push the desktop to their house, and as long as they get the work they need for the day they don't have to come into the office. You give them hours to punch into and out of the computer. You know what they're supposed to complete, so there's accountability."

The changes possible with a shift in work styles can extend far beyond the desktop itself. "You can hotel [workers] out and size buildings for the interaction with the public." The cost savings and increased efficiency aren't enough to convince everyone instantly, though. "It's a hard business process to sell, because some people aren't astute on the mobile workforce: They feel that the taxpayers are paying for the workers, so they need to be in the office. It's social factors that limit the roll-out rather than the technology," Kosinetz explained.

In the future, he said that changes might present themselves in terms of greater reliance on service providers -- or new hardware for Sussex County. "The servers I'm using as my infrastructure are reaching end-of-life, and I'm looking at replacing hardware. I'm looking at whether it's better to own the equipment or rent the capabilities from Amazon, Rackspace, or some other company out there."

While many people assume that a cloud-based service provider will always be the low-cost option, he said that his experience indicates otherwise. 

Not long ago he conducted an experiment aimed at discovering performance and cost. Kosinetz said it was a valuable experience. "When I got the bill at the end of the month it was for over $1,000, and that was much higher than the operating cost of my own servers. When you hear thirty cents an hour, it doesn't sound like much, but when you're looking at 24/7 it adds up. These are the challenges I'm working on now."