Enhancing the Cox Communications Virtual Infrastructure
AppSense suite boosts profile-management capabilities.
As the third-largest cable provider in the country, Cox Communications Inc. has its employees spread throughout the Midwest in numerous remote offices. Many employees spend most of their workdays on the road and in the field. Supporting such a geographically dispersed workforce, much less doing so efficiently and inexpensively, is a colossal challenge. When faced with lingering issues like call center downtime and an overburdened IT staff, Cox IT Manager Dan Powers turned to a virtual infrastructure.
Powers began bringing virtualization into the mix at Cox in late 2008. The potential for significant cost savings, the flexibility of deploying and managing remote agents, and increasing the levels of uptime for both users and call center representatives all motivated Powers and Cox executives.
Cox offers its customers cable television, Internet connectivity and land telephone lines, and has recently added wireless service to its portfolio. According to Powers, Cox is the only telecommunications provider that offers all four of these services. Based in Omaha, Neb., the company's revenue is approximately $500,000,000 per year. There are 1,100 employees working in the Omaha facility, and about 70,000 employees at other facilities and remote offices in the Midwest.
"My main focus is the Omaha facility," Powers says, "but some of the VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] stuff falls into other groups." From Omaha, Powers' IT teams also support a Sun Valley, Idaho, facility and a group of remote users. Powers' greatest operational need was to maximize the efficiency of his relatively small IT group and get them out of the break/fix cycle that was consuming all their time and resources.
The Cox IT department under Powers' command consists of about 15 people. "I have a couple of teams under me," he says. There's the desktop support team, which consists of four technicians plus their supervisor. There's also an infrastructure team, which has four IT staffers focusing on network and telephony support.
"So half of the group is truly designated to supporting infrastructure and environment," he says. "We're a pretty slim group, so we knew we had to work smarter, not harder. How can I support 1,100 users with just a handful of guys?"
Powers also had to fulfill a corporate objective to deploy the Cox Virtual Office (CVO). This was another major impetus for the move to a virtual environment. "My goal was: I want one solution and the ability to leverage different aspects of that and put all my users in that environment," he says. The individual virtualization projects Powers has deployed are all components of the total CVO infrastructure.
In Praise of Profiles
The virtualization platform at Cox currently includes VMware View 3 running on Wyse thin clients. Powers will likely migrate to VMware View 4 at some point during the first half of this year. The 1,100 users in Omaha he supports account for 1,200 desktop PCs and laptops and 100 servers.
From a purely technological perspective, the virtual infrastructure project was running relatively smoothly, but Powers eventually realized there was a major oversight in the operational planning. "It was eight to nine months in before we started realizing problems around profile management," he explains. "We'd completely overlooked the end-user experience, which was a huge miss. We were so focused on the technical obstacles."
Due to the lack of personalization and profile management, the call center reps were spending too much time reconfiguring their individual desktop profiles at the beginning of every day. If they logged off or lost connectivity for any reason, it was difficult and time-consuming to log in again and start all over with a brand-new virtual machine (VM). This was the first hint of a larger issue: They needed to move to non-persistent desktops to avoid the management overhead of running persistent desktops.
Recognizing and managing those profiles was an essential step, and, unfortunately, one the Cox IT team initially neglected to consider. When they looked into the problem again, they found the profile-management component of AppSense would do the trick. AppSense provides virtualization technology that manages user-specific information independently of the desktop and applies it to any desktop on-demand. Powers chose AppSense because its technology did everything they wanted it to do -- and more.
"The most important piece was the AppSense suite. That was crucial for us," Powers says. "We thought we had it figured out and deployed without AppSense." But he didn't realize they needed something to deal with management. "The goal is to be non-persistent in a desktop environment, so they get a stable platform configuration exactly as it's supposed to be. That ensures a level of uptime," he notes.
Using the AppSense profile and environment management modules, log-on times have decreased significantly. Users are able to work from the office or at home, on the same PC with the same configuration settings. AppSense provides flexibility and control over their desktops, regardless of where they log in or what system they're using.
"When it came to managing profiles, AppSense kept getting the check mark," Powers says, adding that in order to reduce network traffic, expedite the log-on process and minimize the potential for user profile corruption, AppSense Environment Manager streams user settings on-demand as the user behavior and needs dictate. Personalization and policy settings are delivered to the desktop or laptop environment after the user logs on and begins using the applications and OS.
Previously, user configuration changes were stored exclusively in profiles. These were cumbersome, subject to corruption and resulted in slow log-on times. With user virtualization, the personalization and configuration settings are managed independently from the desktop and are applied on-demand to personalize a desktop, regardless of how the OS or the applications are delivered.
The AppSense Environment Manager essentially eliminates the need for user profiles by virtualizing the registry files. This way, it can automatically monitor, virtualize, redirect and store the user personalization or configuration changes as a separate layer of the desktop -- independent of the operating system and applications. Because this personalization layer is now stored and managed separately, the server sends it on-demand to any desktop, along with the OS or application layer.
Virtualizing the user personalization settings and separating them from the rest of the virtualized desktop helps Powers migrate users, along with their settings, between desktops and even OSes. This will help as he expands the virtual infrastructure at Cox and moves his users to Windows 7 sometime later this year. He plans to do so first in the Omaha facility, and then nationwide.
These benefits come from the profile-management functions of AppSense, but there are also performance or application-management functions. "We're still in the phase of testing to see how far we can push it," Powers says. "If I can run AppSense, and it's going to give me 30 more virtual machines per server than before with Performance Manager, that was icing on the cake. We've bought it for every machine in our environment -- both physical and virtual."
Don't Forget the Users
"We've had the virtual desktop infrastructure in our environment for about two-and-a-half years," Powers says. "The first year was very small scale, mostly dealing with our remote agents. Then last year really kicked off a new plan to put VMware View in on a large scale throughout our environment." While Powers made every effort to head off every potential technical glitch, he recognized the need to factor in the user needs during the project planning process.
The importance of establishing a crystal-clear view of user behaviors and needs remains the single most important task when putting together a plan for this type of project. "One of the biggest lessons we learned during this process," Powers says, was "don't forget to assess user needs."
Lafe Low is the editorial liaison for ECG Events.