Desktop Virtualization Eases Disaster Recovery Challenges

Indiana's government IT departments gain faster restoration after disasters as well as easier management and better security through desktop virtualization

March 19, 2009

5 Min Read
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The state government of Indiana launched an effort in 2005 under incoming Gov. Mitch Daniels to centralize the state's IT infrastructure, an initiative that has reduced the state's spending on IT and increased manageability, security, and the ability to respond to disaster.

One of the challenges of running the state's IT infrastructure, with more than a dozen separate departments and more than 100 agencies, is that each unit is essentially a different line of business. "These agencies run on very specialized applications that often don't have a market beyond state government, or even a specific sub-bureau within an agency," says Gerry Weaver, chief information officer for the Indiana Office of Technology.

The sprawl of such a diverse set of applications across more than 25,000 desktops and 1,200 servers was growing more difficult to manage, support cost effectively, and secure. For instance, Weaver says aged and often specialized applications would create compatibility issues with newer desktop applications. And the state's office of technology didn't have an easy and effective way to send out security patches and other software updates, resulting in a lot of downtime and virus infections.

In an effort to reduce application support costs and improve uptime and security, the state turned to Microsoft's SoftGrid Application Virtualization to deploy virtual instances of the specialized applications. The aim was to encapsulate troublesome applications in secure "sandboxed" virtualized instances to eliminate compatibility issues and to make it easier to troubleshoot configuration and application issues that did arise.

The state also installed Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager 2007 for application distribution, asset management, and remote system support. To manage the systems distributed throughout the state, half of the desktops are managed by one of two primary management centers, in addition to 15 additional satellite support sites."Configuration Manager has helped us to standardize all of our systems, while virtualization has enabled us to virtualize the specialized agency applications in a quarantined area of the system that blocks compatibility issues with the rest of the desktop image," says Brian Arrowood, director of service operations at the Indiana Office of Technology. In addition, should something go wrong with any application, restoration of the system requires little more than downloading a new image to the affected desktop, he says.

Altogether, this drive to centralize administration, improve configuration management, and add virtualization has saved the state $14 million, the Indiana Office of Technology estimates. "The most important result of our optimizing our infrastructure is that the agencies can now focus on delivering their mission to the citizens," says Arrowood.

The ability to quickly restore problem systems and data has been tested and proven to work. "Last year, we had a workforce development office burn down on a Friday in the southern part of the state. On Monday, we had them in another government office, with PCs up and running like nothing happened," says Weaver. "It was just a matter of shipping them the PCs and downloading the virtualized desktop instances along with our backups of their data."

Also last year, when flooding inundated 41 counties of the state, the Office of Technology was able to respond. "Several counties were hit with very extensive flooding, and we were able to get 600 PCs out to the field very rapidly," says Weaver. All the applications needed to provide basic services were ready to run in hardened, virtualized instances, so it was straightforward to get PCs where they were needed most. "We did not have to worry about security because the images were secure, and sandboxed from the rest of the PC."

The state's IT team used Microsoft's Windows Deployment services to build the machines, and Microsoft System Center Configuration Manager and SoftGrid Application Virtualization for the software deployment. "Given the overnight requirements for both of those deployments, we built the PCs centrally and then shipped them. We had technicians setup the systems on site," says Arrowood.Because all worker data is automatically backed up to the state's storage area network, the government workers could work from centrally located school gymnasiums with employees from the Federal Emergency Management Agency to help keep displaced families safe, and the state's Family & Social Services Administration could get food stamps to those in need. "In the past, there was no way we could have accomplished anything like that so quickly," says Weaver.

Beyond cost savings, the new management architecture and virtualization has increased the accuracy of the state's IT asset application and system inventories, and improved security. For instance, many applications across agencies required the operating system to be running with administrative privileges enabled. "Virtualization has helped us to reduce the number of desktops that required those escalated privileges to be enabled," says Arrowood. "This was a huge benefit, especially with the high level of virus and malware activity going on these days.

"Before this, if there was a virus outbreak, we couldn't get the remediative measures in place fast enough. Deploying patches and updates often involved IT workers driving from office to office to patch," Arrowood explains. "In most instances, these were completely avoidable outbreaks that resulted in some agencies being knocked out of business for a week."

Also, the improved inventory management has enabled the state to know exactly what hardware is installed at what location, and the software it runs. This, explains Weaver, also has provided improved patching workflow. "We can test and then deploy those patches into production systems. For us, that's no trivial operation. We have PCs in State Police cars and out in Department of Natural Resources campsites. We need to make sure they're all at an appropriate patch level. Improved configuration management, and the resulting more accurate reports, has enabled us to do this," adds Arrowood.

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