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Slimming Down with Thin Clients

By Bob Violino  |  Posted 2009-07-31 Print this article Print

Embarq hopes to save money with thin-client computing.

Everyone’s looking for ways to cut costs in a challenging economy. Communications services provider Embarq Corp. is trying to accomplish this by slimming down — through the use of thin computing. The Overland Park, Kan., company has launched a project to refresh 3,000 desktop PCs with thin computing devices, and expects to save money and simplify how it manages desktops.   

Embarq needed to replace the PCs this year because they were nearing the end of their lifecycle. Managers considered the options of swapping out the computers for new traditional desktop devices, or moving to a virtual desktop infrastructure environment and using thin clients instead of traditional PCs.

They opted for the latter plan, deciding to build a virtual infrastructure in Embarq’s data center using desktop virtualization software, and deploying thin client computing devices. 

“Cost savings was the primary driver,” says Byron Clymer, vice president of infrastructure services at Embarq. “Every year we have to refresh between 25% to 30% of our desktop assets because they are at end of life. So each year we have to spend capital on refresh.”

Depending on the environment the desktops are in, the company can get between 3.5 to 5 years out of a desktop machine. Thin computing devices, on the other hand, are expected to have an average lifespan of between eight to 10 years. “By taking this approach, those capital dollars can be used for other purchases needed by the company,” Clymer says.

By using desktop virtualization and thin clients, Embarq also will rely on fewer technicians to support the 3,000 users, reducing the number from 20 to 10 over a three year period. Thin computing devices have no moving parts, and are less likely to have repair issues.

Another key driver of the project was to enable some employees to work from home. “The platform we are implementing will allow the users’ desktop to follow them wherever they are, in the office, at home or wherever they can get an Internet connection,” Clymer says.

An additional benefit is improved security and reliability. Data from the devices is backed up and protected in the company’s data center. And with the virtualized environment, operating system patches and application updates can be done from a central location and outside of normal work schedules.

Embarq launched the virtualization/thin client initiative in early 2008. The company first put in place a pilot to test different thin computing devices with the virtualization software. It looked at products from Sun Microsystems, Wyse and Pano, and ultimately selected Wyse. Embarq has explored desktop virtualization solutions from Microsoft, Citrix and VMware and is still evaluating the software.

The company has since deployed thin computers for its internal IT help desk. “The help desk is outsourced so we needed an easy way to extend the applications we use to the service provider,” Clymer says. “This was a good way for us to test it internally and gain some learnings from it.”

Embarq plans to expand the rollout over time. The first phase includes only general purpose desktops, such as those supporting corporate functions like human resources, legal, finance and IT. The next phases will include areas such as call centers.

One challenge of the project has been finding the right combination of thin clients, virtualization software, server software and storage that worked best for the company’s needs.

“These are not what I would classify as ‘cookie cutter’ implementations,” Clymer says. One of the biggest issues Embarq ran into was the speed of the disk the company was using in its storage-area network environment. The disk was not able to keep up with the virtualization software. Technicians moved the software to a faster disk and that solved the problem.

Multimedia support is another challenge. “There is not a good way to solve this” problem, Clymer says. ”If you do a lot of high-end video streaming then this may not be the solution for you. The upside to this is both the hardware and virtualization software vendors are working on solving this.”

Clymer recommends that any company considering a similar effort to leverage the vendors for help. “Unless you have the experience, stick with the vendor’s recommended deployment approach,” he says. “It will make troubleshooting issues much easier.”

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