Agencies have been reaping the benefits of IT virtualization for several years, and as these efforts mature, virtualization has begun to reach end to end in some federal organizations — from back-end servers and storage systems out to desktop computers.
Government IT shops have been able to reduce expenses, save energy and operate more efficiently by consolidating servers through virtualization. Client virtualization provides many similar benefits, and agencies are just scratching the surface. Client virtualization draws a lot of attention, says Shawn McCarthy, research director for IDC Government Insights. It's not ubiquitous, but many IT shops are running small test beds. "Personally, I'm a fan of virtual desktops because I think there's the potential for savings and the elimination of some management headaches," he says.
That's what agencies report as well. The Environmental Protection Agency has been virtualizing its systems since 2004, when it began consolidating servers at its National Computer Center in Research Triangle Park, N.C. Server virtualization has helped EPA meet federal guidelines for IT operations.
"Relative to federal data consolidation efforts and green computing efforts, virtualization is a big part of our strategy," says David Updike, acting director of the center, which runs more than 346 virtual servers on 40 host machines.
The server successes have encouraged EPA to try virtual clients. The agency has targeted specific users for pilots, starting with a handful of geospatial information system users to see if the virtualized system could handle large data sets. "It worked well," says Vaughn Noga, EPA's chief technology officer. "We got good responses from our users in the field."
The agency continues to look for those who will benefit from using virtual clients; for example, about 150 users who provide content for EPA's website.
Client virtualization improves continuity of operations, allows secure access for mobile users and teleworkers, and lets the agency serve up specialized applications and other resources on standard desktop machines, Noga says. It also helps the agency manage its data better. "When you use a virtual desktop, the data never really leaves your agency," he adds.
One financial benefit Noga expects is a longer refresh cycle for client hardware. When the processing is done on the back end, the machine on the desk may not need to be replaced every four years.
McCarthy says he's seen this benefit in other client virtualization efforts. "I know some people who have gotten an extra two or three years out of a PC," he says.
Although Peace Corps CIO Dorine Andrews says her annual $16 million IT budget would be a "rounding error" to many other IT shops, the small agency has a global footprint and faces distinct challenges to its virtualization efforts.
The agency began server virtualization in 2009, virtualizing 25 percent of the physical servers at its Washington, D.C., headquarters using VMware software. Candidates for virtualization included operations management and other services, such as BlackBerry, infrastructure support and authentication.
The Peace Corps bought new HP servers to run much of its virtualized environment and is repurposing some of its existing servers. This has made recovery easier and has improved hardware optimization. Andrews also expects it to produce cost and energy savings.
For other locations around the globe, leveraging the infrastructure virtualization at the Peace Corps' headquarters is a goal; however, that challenge remains unmet due to poor network bandwidth and connectivity in about one-third of the agency's roughly 75 posts, which have one physical host machine at each location. "In the short term, however, we have implemented Microsoft's virtualization platform, Hyper-V, at these posts, virtualizing many of the services in support of post operations," Andrews says. "Everyone talks about bandwidth and how easy it is, but that's not the case for us."
The Peace Corps first tested client virtualization in 2009 after the H1N1 flu pandemic. Roughly 10 to 15 senior staff members used government-issued notebook PCs to maintain continuity of operations. That led the agency to extend the ability to work remotely to more users.
"We continue to use VMware View Client as the remote desktop solution, and as telework grows, we encourage people to install it on their home computers," Andrews says.
The agency currently can support as many as 200 teleworkers simultaneously, and Andrews estimates that 40 to 50 staff members telework on any given day.
EPA plans to greatly expand its client virtualization from a few hundred users to several thousand. The agency will use Citrix XenDesktop Platinum to manage the effort. The agency has seen significant energy savings from its server virtualization, but that's just the start of what virtual clients can do, Noga says.
"We've got about 20,000 endpoints," he says. "If you can take that and consolidate it, I think we'll save more power on the virtualization of desktops than on the data center server virtualization."
The Peace Corps will move forward with its virtualization plans as well, ultimately making virtual clients available to all headquarters staff. The agency has completed 40 percent to 45 percent of its planned server and client virtualization.
"I think the plan is for us to have the agency fully virtualized over the next three to four years," says Poornima Rai, Peace Corps' manager of global IT operations.