Reality check: Southern scales back desktop virtualization

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Southern’s high hopes for virtual desktops turn into a learning experience with soft returns.

Computerworld – Southern Co. had big ambitions for virtualizing its desktops. The company’s IT leaders say they saw virtualization as an easier, cheaper setup than conventional PC environments.

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In fact, as they started a virtualization pilot in early 2010, they figured they could do a widespread deployment without much difficulty and move most of the company’s employees into a virtual desktop environment over two to three years.

Then reality hit.
At a Glance

Company: Atlanta-based Southern Co. is one of the largest producers of electricity in the U.S., serving customers in Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Mississippi.

Team leader: David L. Coker, vice president of computing and network services, proposed the Virtual Desktop Implementation Project as a way to cut costs while maintaining reliable IT services.

IT department: The total size of the IT group is 1,007, supporting nearly 25,500 employees.

Return on investment: According to IT leaders, the desktop virtualization ROI comes from more efficient management and increased flexibility.

“When we originally went into the pilot, we thought it would be a revolution — that we’d put these machines out across the organization and we’d save a lot of money,” says Steve Weber, Southern’s director of client services. “What I learned going through this is that it wasn’t ready for the revolution, but it had evolution aspects.”

The company’s experience illustrates the complexities of desktop virtualization. On the one hand, IT leaders recognize that the architecture promises to deliver some powerful benefits and financial returns. On the other, they’re learning that those returns don’t come easily.

“I think it’s a much better architecture. It’s more stable. It’s more secure. It’s easier to manage. And I think it will become the preferred architecture,” Weber says. “But the question is, how do you get there?”

Southern is working on the answer.

The Atlanta-based energy company first considered desktop virtualization in 2004, when it started to virtualize its data center. Client services manager Mark Canup says the company pushed for data center virtualization for the typical reasons: reduced costs, increased flexibility, and lower energy use.

Back then, Southern’s IT executives believed that desktop virtualization could deliver similar benefits, Canup says. But while server virtualization in the data center moved ahead, initial attempts at desktop virtualization yielded few returns. That’s because desktop virtualization five or so years ago essentially meant moving applications off a desktop and putting them on a server.

“You had a PC behind the data center for every thin client you had in the field when it first started out, and you couldn’t get enough virtual desktops on one server to make sense,” Weber says.

That had changed by late 2009, when Southern decided to launch a pilot desktop virtualization project.