Overcoming Challenges of a Virtual Computer Network

Posted by on Apr 23, 2013

Our new “thin clients.”

We talked about why Sain Associates decided to make some changes in our IT department and move to an all virtual computer network in last week’s post.

Today, all of our computing resources — servers, desktops, software applications and data — reside within Sain’s new datacenter in Birmingham, Alabama.  All employees, including branch office employees, access these resources from the same centralized datacenter. By using a specialized network protocol (PCOIP), users can remotely access their virtual desktops via the Internet and work almost as fast as if they were in the local Birmingham office.

But there were a lot of concerns about how we would get here. Given our number (60+) and variety of software applications, we didn’t know if they would all work within a totally virtual computer environment.

The old towers

Each department was tasked with contacting the vendors for their department’s software applications to ask if their product would function within a virtual desktop environment. Unfortunately, the majority of the vendor responses were simply, “We don’t know, but please let us know if you have any success.”

While this was somewhat discouraging, we persevered and set up a test bed to test all software applications before deciding to completely virtualize the desktop infrastructure. The results were positive, and this has definitely helped move us to the fore-front of other similar-sized engineering companies in Alabama.

The success has been great, but it has been a challenging experience for all of us at Sain Associates. We’ve had to learn a different way to access our computers and change our perception of them. Other than your typical keyboard, mouse and monitors, the only computer device on a user’s desktop is a “thin client” box (5”x6”x1 ¾”) that has 2 monitor ports, 4 USB ports, 1 Ethernet port, a speaker and headphone connection and a power connector.

I believe the long-term benefits of server and desktop virtualization will outweigh any “inconveniences” and minor performance issues.  With nearly instantaneous recovery from a virtual server or desktop failure (5 to 30 minutes), production downtime will be reduced significantly if not eliminated.

Add to this the peace-of-mind that Sain’s data and computer resources will still be intact and available if a disaster should occur.  All virtual servers and desktops, along with all company data files, are replicated to a pair of HP servers located in Sain’s Pulaski, Tennessee branch office, which now also serves as the company’s Disaster Recovery (DR) Site.  If a disaster occurs at the Birmingham datacenter, all operations will fail-over there.  Users will be able to remotely access virtual desktops, applications and data via the Internet, and continue working during disaster recovery and cleanup.

Couple this with a nearly local LAN-speed desktop experience when accessing Sain’s datacenter remotely, and I am confident that everyone at Sain will continue to be very happy about our new computer network infrastructure!

My daddy used to tell me “Can’t never could, or ever will do anything,” and I always keep that in mind when faced with a challenge. It definitely helped us make this move to an all virtual computer environment.

All the Technical Details

We settled on VMware vSphere, ver. 5.1 because of their excellent history with computer virtualization.  VMware is a very well-known company, whose primary product is “built-from-the-ground-up” to support computer virtualization.

We paired VMware with an EMC Storage Area Network (SAN) for shared data storage.

All Virtual Servers (Windows Server 2010) run on one pair of redundant HP Proliant hardware servers, and all Virtual Desktops (Windows 7) run on another pair of redundant HP servers.  The new office is wired with Cat6 1Gb/s network cabling, all connected to 1Gb/s HP network switches.

We would like to say a special thank you to our IT consultant, Venture Technologies, and their on-site project manager, Chris Parvin, for  helping our virtualization project go smoothly. 

Sain Associates, Inc., is headquartered in Birmingham, Alabama, with offices in Cullman, Alabama, Pulaski, Tennessee and Mandeville, Louisiana. Sain is a site engineering, traffic/transportation engineering and planning and land surveying firm with experience in more than thirty states.

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