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Cincinnati Bell Sees Desktop Virtualization As Cost Saver And Profit Maker

Local service provider combines VMWare with Sun VDI for a flexible means of serving up virtual desktops.
Cincinnati Bell is an eager candidate to adopt desktop virtualization. That's because what's good for Cincinnati Bell internally is also a potential new revenue source.

The southwestern Ohio company is in the first phase of a desktop virtualization rollout based on VMware Infrastructure 3 and Sun Microsystems Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. With about 3,300 computer-using white-collar employees, it will convert one-fourth of them to virtual machines in the initial effort.

Cincinnati Bell -- Photo by Elyce Feliz/Flickr

Virtualizing desktops, inside and out

Photo by Elyce Feliz/Flickr
Over the next two quarters, Cincinnati Bell will convert 750 users, mainly call center, help desk, and service desk employees, to Sun Ray thin clients, says Jeff Harvey, the project leader. In addition, many data center and network operations center staffers will convert to thin clients with virtualized desktops. And some sales staff will go from laptops to Sun's laptop-like thin-client computer.

Asked what prompted the moves, Harvey says these users are on Windows 2000 PCs, for which the company is approaching "the end of life support."

"Most of it is running on leased assets," he says. "We have no choice" but to move to something else, and thin clients are a less-expensive alternative to upgrading hundreds of PCs.

Some of Cincinnati Bell's computer users already have moved to Windows XP, Harvey says. Small groups will remain on either Windows 2000 or Windows 2003, running an aging version of Lotus Notes. A handful will run Windows XP Professional, and two software quality-assurance testers will require virtual machines running Vista, so that the company can be sure the new software it's writing internally and for customers will work under a future Vista upgrade. The host hardware on which the VMs are located is likely to be running XP and, someday, Vista. The ability to keep some users as they are, without an operating system and application upgrade, "minimizes business disruption," another advantage to the desktop virtualization move, Harvey says.

VMware offers its own virtual desktop infrastructure, as does Kidaro, recently acquired by Microsoft, and other vendors. Cincinnati Bell turned to Sun VDI because it works on top of VMware Infrastructure 3, which Cincinnati Bell already had installed. In addition, it supports a range of user interfaces.

Sun VDI translates the Windows Remote Desktop Protocol for use on various user systems, including Linux, Solaris for x86, Macintosh, various Windows versions, and the Sun Ray thin client. VMware generates the virtual machines, and Sun's Desktop Connector sits between the VMware pool and users. Desktop Connector, part of VDI 2.0, provides policy-based management of user connections.

"At 8:03 a.m., it may be necessary to spin up 800 desktops," says Harvey, and Desktop Connector will draw from servers running 12 "golden images" to give each user the right VM. Upgrading 800 users consists of updating the 12 golden images rather than 800 systems, resulting in a significant administrative cost savings, he says.

As Cincinnati Bell has gained experience using virtual desktops, it's started offering business customers the option of using desktop VMs, managed by Cincinnati Bell. Over the last three quarters, it has landed a few large customers, though Harvey declines to identify them.

For the future internal rollout, he's looking to give some users virtualized Windows on regular PCs and laptops, as well as add more thin-client users. Cincinnati Bell will try to leave that choice to users, though Harvey concedes that with thin clients, "their low cost is a factor" and adds that "Sun has got a great thin-client solution."