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.

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InformationWeek is spotlighting the companies whose innovative solutions to technology and business challenges earned them a place on our 2015 Elite 100. For more on the program, and to see profiles of the Top 10 Elite 100 finalists, click here.

When Sussex County, NJ, submitted an entry to the InformationWeek Elite 100, it was for a virtual solution to a set of very real problems. Putting government employees closer to the work they perform and sharing the cost of doing so among a set of municipalities should make services more effective and affordable for each government entity. Putting that theory into practice is the job of William Kosinetz, CIO of Sussex County.

The impetus for a mobile workforce came from a disaster. Preparing for the worst was a major factor in giving employees more mobility, Kosinetz said in a telephone interview. "[We did this] so I had 100% mobility in a workforce that can work in emergency situations." When Hurricane Sandy hit the Northeast, that mobility paid off. "[Sandy] took out a lot of the infrastructure in our county. My facilities and some of the emergency facilities were on generators, and we were able to relocate employees to the facilities where they were able to have access to their virtual desktops."

Successfully bringing mobility to workers has an impact when the circumstances are less fraught with disaster, as well. "We have a remote building and the roof was bad, so they went to put a roof on and the tar off-gassing created a bad environment for the workers. We were able to re-locate the employees to dispersed areas and they were able to have their desktops. All the applications and desktops were available remotely." He summed up the situation. "This is how virtualization creates a business continuity plan."

Kosinetz said that the nature of the work done by many of the government employees suggested that a new way of working was in order. "It's mostly because of the workforce we have -- there are mobility issues. We have a lot of health inspectors who inspect wells, septic tanks, restaurants -- they're all under some sort of regulation and the inspectors are always out on the road. We have quite an extensive mobile workforce, so having their desktop mobile is a very nice environment."

Sussex County is in the northwest corner of New Jersey.

(Image: OCNY Fire -- Fire Departments of Orange County, N.Y.)

Sussex County is in the northwest corner of New Jersey.

(Image: OCNY Fire -- Fire Departments of Orange County, N.Y.)

Allowing employees to do a significant portion of their jobs in the field aided efficiency, he explained. "Before, they would go out with the clipboard and tablet, come back into the office, and transcribe into the database, so you'd have a lot of wasted time." Putting a mobile desktop in the hands of the employee in the field saves time, vehicle wear and tear, and fuel. All of that ultimately helps the organization save money.

Mobile Technology

Sussex County has based its desktop virtualization on VMWare Horizon View. Kosinetz is blunt in describing the reason for the choice: "I've evaluated a lot, and that's the one we felt most comfortable with."

In order to deploy the virtual desktops to more than 1,200 users, he became a private cloud provider. "I virtualize the servers and virtualize the desktops," he said. "I create a VLAN and virtualize everything to function on the VLAN. Then I distribute the VLAN to other facilities."

One of the keys to mobile employee productivity is the ability to see and use the virtual desktop on a wide variety of mobile devices. "They use iPad tablets, or a Galaxy tablet, or the Kindle Fire tablet,"

(Page 2: Simplified management saves time and expense)

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."

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

(Image: Courtesy of William Kosinetz)

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

(Image: Courtesy of William Kosinetz)

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."

Curtis Franklin Jr. is Senior Editor at Dark Reading. In this role he focuses on product and technology coverage for the publication. In addition he works on audio and video programming for Dark Reading and contributes to activities at Interop ITX, Black Hat, INsecurity, and ... View Full Bio
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