The SITS Group, based in the North East of England, was formed in March 2008, to solve classic IT infrastructure challenges with innovative virtualisation technology. The company made a strategic decision to limit the number of partnerships to a select few, in order to maintain a very high level of expertise in these vendor offerings. The SITS Group is a Liquidware Labs Acceler8 Partner and Center of Excellence, and has standardised on Liquidware Labs ProfileUnity and Stratusphere solutions as best-in-class desktop virtualization software.
The company works with a wide range of clients, among them manufacturers, public sector, real estate, education, and legal practices. SITS Group’s clients are diverse in size, type and industry, but they are united with a common agenda. They all wish to leverage virtualisation technologies in order to transform their operations for greater efficiency today and to set the stage for continued evolution.
I recently sat down with Phil Cambers, Commercial Director and Russell Henderson, Technical Director, from the SITS Group to get their perspective on real-world desktop virtualisation deployments and why they have been successful.
Krokidas: It almost seems like a risky strategy to focus on only a handful of vendors, but the SITS Group has been very successful with this approach. Why would you say that is?
Cambers: Well first of all, we have excellent partners with world-class products, including Citrix, VMware, Dell, Veeam, Atlantis and Liquidware Labs. We realized early on that it was critical to be highly specialized in key areas and with key vendor offerings – go deep rather than wide. We initially focused on VMware server virtualization for server consolidation. From there, with Veeam, we extended our practice with business continuity services. It was a logical next step to launch desktop virtualisation services, which is where the Liquidware Labs partnership and Health Checks and planning services came about. All of these initiatives are highly dependent on accurate data center and storage design, which rounds out our consultancy. So our specializations are really tightly integrated, and yet comprehensive which is critical to getting it right for customers.
Krokidas: Liquidware Labs is the relative newcomer in your partner group. How did this relationship start?
Cambers: Well, another key reason for SITS Group’ success is that we adhere to a phased approach in our engagements, which starts with intensive data gathering and planning. You simply must have accurate, objective and reliable data to make sound decisions in IT projects, especially when launching desktop virtualization. When we launched this practice, we started looking around for software to help us in the planning phase, and we found your Stratusphere FIT software for assessments. It was a perfect tool for us to get a real picture of our customers’ physical desktops as a basis for designing the virtual infrastructure. A real benefit was that this software worked cross-platform which also supported our ability to construct best-practice infrastructures based on the specific needs of the customer and their legacy technologies. Another advantage is that we can quickly create a bill of materials to present to the customers, which lays out the hardware, storage and licenses they are going to need in order to virtualize.
Krokidas: Are assessments still important to your customers?
Cambers: Yes. You have to realize that desktop environments grow up somewhat ad hoc over years. Organizations typically put new procedures, policies and technologies in place, but these function alongside outdated or obsolete constructs. That is why we insist on starting with an assessment, and we really have surprised our customers with our findings. Stratusphere FIT stands out by a mile in terms of the level of detail it gives us and makes our consultants more efficient and more effective and allows them to deliver more assessments, which is very important to us.
Henderson: Another thing I want to point out is the assessment helps set customers’ expectations as to which of their workspaces can and cannot be virtualized. It is as important to be able to explain to them why a desktop loaded with graphics or data-intensive kinds of applications, like CAD programs or 3D simulation for example, may not be a good candidate for virtualisation.
Krokidas: What kinds of challenges do you see in your customers’ environments?
Henderson: We do see some consistent patterns, although people may not recognize them as challenges per se. They usually think that they have a pretty good handle on their environments, but they are not thinking in the same terms we are.
If there is any one single aspect that is common to all of our customers, I would say that they all launch VDI with the goal of getting user data under control. They all want to get their data into secure central storage so it cannot be lost or compromised. And so in order to achieve that goal, it’s important to bring users and applications under control, as a means to that end.
For example, we work with a lot of manufacturing companies. These companies use CAD software like Autodesk or Revit, for product design, and produce large scale drawings and diagrams or simulations, which are stored either locally to the desktop or in remote branch offices. These users have a great deal of very expensive, business-critical IP on their workstations, and the goal is to bring all that into the data center.
But it is very costly to run those applications in the data center. And with Stratusphere FIT, we can measure the GPU and the application data intensity to show people exactly why you could NOT bring something into the data center or what it would take in order to do so.
For example, running the kind of high level modeling done in CAD applications requires very high end NVIDIA cards – maybe as high as adding 10 – 12,000 pounds per the cost of each host in order to support – and when you talk about multiple hosts – you will be getting into very significant cost. But we can show with the FIT assessment what it would take to virtualise these applications and balance cost and complexity against their need to bring highly valuable data under control.
The assessment also highlights other information gaps. If you were to ask a highly competent IT manager in any industry, ‘what apps are you using and how do you use them?’ they would have a good answer. But if you ask them what I/O or network traffic does an app or set of apps drive? What else does it communicate with? Hardly anybody would be able to give you that kind of information. So we use Stratusphere FIT to get that data to be able to design the infrastructure with the correct resources.
Another thing we uncover is that most managers really don’t know how many versions of the same software they have out there. They are always really surprised to find that out.
Cambers: To extend what Russell is saying, you also need to bring users under control, and users can resist that heavily if your approach restricts their work methods too much. We have found that preserving the personalization and customizations users want on their desktops is very important to the success of the project.
That’s where ProfileUnity FlexApp fits in. It allows administrators to get control of the applications, data and users, and yet it still looks and feels to users that they have the same old desktop. You can replace Roaming Profiles and the problems they cause, get login/logoff speeds to a sensible time, get app launch times nice and quick, and redirect the data and all that, while you provide users with the same views and all the apps they need. You can also help get the number of gold master images down to a reasonable level. You can take advantage of Group Policy. Technically, the software is very strong. And there is no need for a large investment in additional hardware, because ProfileUnity doesn’t require a whole lot of additional infrastructure. ProfileUnity has given us the ability to meet our customers’ needs in ways that may not be possible otherwise.
Krokidas: So you have broken out Health Checks as a separate service. Why is this so important?
Henderson: As we mentioned, legacy physical desktop environments grow up over time so you probably have a mix of OS, application versions and a lot of maintenance and security applications sitting on every desktop.
The Health Check practice came out of a few things we were seeing over and over again. The first is that outdated or incompatible physical desktop practices are applied to the virtual desktops, and can lead to issues. The second is that not all applications play well in virtual environments, and sometimes adjustments are needed. The third is that scaling the environment can lead to problems when resources are not well matched to demand or are poorly configured. So you need a way to get to the root cause of the issue, which can be very difficult. We’ve found Stratusphere UX to be a very good solution to help us accurately pinpoint the cause of issues when we come up against bottlenecks or compromised performance and need to drill down to the source.
Cambers: It’s really about being able to drill into something and find out what the problem is and put your finger right on it. You don’t want to have to spend hours and hours going through logs or Perfmons to find the trouble. Stratusphere UX helps us to look at patterns of normality….once there is a blip out of that pattern of normality, then we need to check into it to understand what is going on and address it. It’s really critical to see when the abnormality took place and what other events were going on at the same time. You have to look at the data in context. Stratusphere UX provides that view and allows us to very quickly put our finger on the root cause.
Monitoring the environment gives you incredible clarity about how your users are spending their time, and how well the virtual infrastructure is meeting their needs. This level of visibility and management is just not possible with physical desktops.