Clayton Sammons, Deputy Director of Cyberspace and Technology, Air Force Reserve Command, says that VDI has proved essential during the pandemic. 

Mar 11 2021

VDI Supports the Additional Workers Needed During Surges and Emergencies

Air Force Reserve Command, VA relied on virtual desktops as the pandemic caused workforce pressure

Across the government, virtual desktop infrastructure provided valuable support as agencies turned to additional temporary and emergency workers to cope with the workload triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic.

Without VDI, “it would have been a very heavy lift to try to respond to COVID,” says Clayton Sammons, deputy director of cyberspace and technology within Air Force Reserve Command. “We saw a surge of activity in telework, and having that existing capability to quickly spin up the desktops was paramount to our success. It gave us the resiliency to respond.”

In VDI, a hypervisor segments servers into virtual machines that in turn host virtual desktops. Users connect to desktop instances through a connection broker, a software-based intermediary between the user and the server.

Agencies can support the virtual machines from one central location, avoiding the slowdowns and access ­limits that can occur with VPN connectivity.

Experts see a number of reasons for government to consider this approach. “If you are bringing in temporary workers, there may not be enough time or money to get them all their own laptop computers,” says James Stanger, CompTIA’s chief technology evangelist. VDI offers the possibility of instantaneous onboarding and off-boarding. “With VDI, they can connect securely, and they can do it very quickly.”

For Air Force Reserve Command and a range of other federal agencies, VDI offers the scalability, speed and security needed to ramp up a temporary or ­emergency workforce.

VDI Is a Quick and Cost-Effective Solution for the Air Force

AFRC supports about 65,000 reservists who come in from time to time to help relieve airmen on active duty, and it needs a reliable and ­cost-effective way to keep them all ­connected. 

With support from CDW•G, the command had been developing its VDI capability before COVID came on the scene.

“Reservists are not here day to day, and yet they need secured connectivity. They have to maintain some form of connectivity to be prepared for their duty, to get their orders, to access administrative systems,” Sammons says.

The command’s VDI effort, known as Desktop Anywhere, helps meet that need. Each reservist has a common access card, or CAC, as an official form of identity. Once validated on the system via CAC, the reservist can connect via the virtual infrastructure.

109%

The percentage increase in spending on temporary federal workers in the first two years of the Trump administration

Source: National Employment Law Project, “Temping Out the Federal Government,” June 2019

VMware provides the connectivity. We have several routing and switching devices, which are primarily Cisco, and on the back end we use Dell’s converged compute platform with Dell storage, and ServiceNow as our IT management suite for things like trouble tickets and help desk support,” Sammons says.

By creating virtual desktops, the command can support a rapid rise in requirements without having to issue government laptops.

“We can spin up thousands of ­desktops at a moment’s notice,” Sammons says. “The scalability is there to respond to the demand. There is a capacity limit — it isn’t infinite — but if somebody out there needs a desktop, we can spin that up within two minutes.”

MORE FROM FEDTECH: Find out how agencies gain flexibility via VDI technology. 

VA Turns to VDI to Rapidly Support a Remote Workforce

The Department of Veterans Affairs also had a head start on virtualized desktop access for its temporary personnel. “Our VDI capability was in the development pipeline a little bit before the pandemic. The advent of COVID really accelerated that effort as an alternative solution to support our remote workforce,” says Eddie Pool, executive director for solution delivery, IT operations and ­services in the VA’s Office of Information and Technology.

An initial deployment to 5,000 users in the spring of 2020 supported typical back-office functions such as email and business applications for Windows 10 users. The capability proved invaluable in supporting remote work at a time when VA was seeing a COVID-driven surge in frontline care.

“VDI gives us the opportunity to ­support a BYOD methodology. Any user with a Windows 10 device can access and use our VDI solution,” Pool says. As a cloud-based infrastructure, VDI “allows us to dial up and down the usage on demand.”

VDI also has helped VA ensure ­security among its temporary and ­emergency users, with the ability to apply patches and enforce policy simultaneously across a broad swath of users.

“In our traditional desktop deployments, we manage vulnerabilities down to the individual endpoints,” Pool says. With VDI, “you are patching that image in the cloud environment, so you only have to maintain and update one ­environment, and users who come in will be on the most current desktop.”

This helps the agency to be more responsive to emerging cyberthreats. “This is a dynamic situation. Now, if there is a new vulnerability or a new patch, we can instantaneously deploy that into the VDI ­environment, and we’re done,” he says.

Experts point to enhanced security as a potential strong point for VDI. “It allows for the possibility of ­end-to-end encryption and possibly advanced authentication,” says IEEE Fellow Tom Coughlin. “The communication between that device and the remote server providing the VDI can be encrypted, and you could also enable two-factor authentication for that device or use a client application that requires a higher level of authentication.”

Eddie Pool, Executive Director for Solution Delivery, IT Operations and ­Services, Department of Veterans Affairs
This is a dynamic situation. Now, if there is a new vulnerability or a new patch, we can instantaneously deploy that into the VDI ­environment, and we’re done.”

Eddie Pool Executive Director for Solution Delivery, IT Operations and ­Services, Department of Veterans Affairs

Pool says the VA would like to make VDI its go-to model in support of ­temporary and emergency workforce needs. “As it relates to future potential surges, VDI will give us the ability to rapidly expand and scale back as needed. It’s my hope that this will evolve into the standard for how we deliver Desktop as a Service,” he says.

DIVE DEEPER: Is VDI or Desktop as a Service better for your agency? Find out! 

SBA Uses Virtual Desktop Tools to Handle Unprecedented Need

As part of its COVID response, the Small Business Administration’s Office of Disaster Assistance (ODA) and Office of the Chief Information Officer worked together to deploy VDI to support an emergency surge in personnel who needed remote connectivity. SBA’s VDI leverages the Windows Virtual Desktop, incorporating Microsoft’s Azure cloud and remote desktop client.

ODA needed to support 15,000 new users at the peak of the pandemic, and it wasn’t practical to deploy laptops to such a vast workforce.

“With the unprecedented nature of personnel required to support ODA for COVID, SBA needed a scalable solution that could be scaled up as needed and reduced as needed,” says Carol Chastang, spokesperson for SBA’s Office of Disaster Assistance.

In addition, VDI enabled the agency to create predefined “host pools” — configurations tailored to support specific types of work roles. That helped to make it quick and easy for users to perform needed tasks.

“Each of the ODA centers has unique needs for software to be installed to ensure the employees of that center can meet the overall ODA mission,” Chastang says. With predefined host pools, users could gain rapid access to those specific resources.

“Another benefit of the VDI is the ability to manage and update user ­software quickly, with minimal disruption to the user,” Chastang says. “We have often seen users complain that after a typical hardware patch on laptops, some features no longer function, and users will contact the help desk. VDI users are patched without interruption, and typically do not have similar concerns about devices no longer performing as expected.”

With the ability to rapidly spin up new users in a secure environment, these and other federal agencies ­increasingly are turning to VDI in ­support of temporary staffing needs.

Even as the pandemic recedes, experts say, VDI’s flexibility and ease of management will likely keep it in play as a means to support government personnel through changing circumstances.

Photography by Matt Odom