The Heinz Endowments is one of the largest philanthropic organizations in the United States, granting more than $60 million to nonprofit organizations every year. Based in Pittsburgh, its primary purpose is to help the whole community of southwestern Pennsylvania thrive—not just economically, but ecologically, educationally and culturally as well.
The Heinz Endowments employs just 35 people, but its IT environment is more typical of that of a much larger organization. Prior to using virtualization, the Heinz team relied on a sprawling patchwork of physical servers to meet the unique technology requirements of each of its grant programs. “At one point, we were getting close to 20 physical servers, which is a little crazy for an organization as small as ours,” says Charles Richardson, director of information technology at The Heinz Endowments. “But in our defense, buying a new server was sometimes our only choice. A lot of our core business applications simply wouldn’t run on a shared server.”
As the Heinz team continued to accumulate new servers, the cost of powering and cooling the datacenter grew from costly to prohibitive. After looking at some of the options available on the market, the IT team took its first steps toward virtualization by deploying VMware vSphere.
The VMware solution looked good on paper. But in the months that followed, Richardson noticed that the total cost of ownership just kept ratcheting up. “Almost everything we wanted was a premium feature, including pretty basic things like high availability and dynamic resource allocation,” he says. “We also wanted to explore options for disaster recovery, but that was a separate product with a separate license in VMware. It all got very expensive very fast.”
Meanwhile, a chance misfortune proved even more costly—and prompted the Heinz team into decisive action. Over the course of one weekend, water leaking from a rooftop cooling tower made its way into the organization’s server rack, ruining key pieces of equipment. “By that point, we were taking some very basic measures to help us recover from a potential disaster—backing up our data on tape, then sending the tape off-site,” says Richardson. “But we knew that really wasn’t good enough. If we were to experience anything more catastrophic than a water leak, we would clearly need a faster way to get back on our feet.”
When the VMware contract came up for renewal, the Heinz team explored competing solutions. Microsoft Hyper-V lacked sufficient maturity at the time, and the virtualization offerings from Red Hat and Oracle were too Linux-centric for an environment that runs almost entirely on Microsoft Windows. Every option seemed to be coming up short, until Richardson stumbled upon Citrix XenServer during a Google search. “When I found XenServer, I wondered if it was legit,” he says. “The product was free, and we would only be paying for support, so I assumed it wouldn’t have much to offer. But once I tested it out, I found it to be incredibly intuitive, and it had every single feature we were looking for. After a few weeks of playing with it in a lab, I was ready to move our VMware environment over to XenServer.”
Today, all of Heinz’s virtual desktops run on XenServer. The entire Avaya PBX phone system runs on it, too, as does Aruba ClearPass, a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy manager. The success of the XenServer deployment convinced Richardson to bring other Citrix solutions into the mix, turning first to Citrix XenDesktop and Citrix XenApp to help address the high cost of desktop replacement. Most of the desktops at Heinz are more than five years old, so the hard drives won’t last much longer. Now whenever a desktop comes to the end of its useful life, Richardson simply replaces the old machine with a Dell Wyse thin client running XenDesktop. The default disk image includes the basic business applications used by everyone in the organization—Microsoft Office, for instance—while XenApp is responsible for delivering specialized applications that are used by only a handful of people. “We have three accountants using Microsoft Dynamics, but we don’t need that slowing down everyone’s virtual desktops,” says Richardson. “So we give them access to Dynamics through XenApp. It’s a great way to accommodate different job functions without hampering the overall performance of our environment.”
In addition, Richardson deploys Citrix NetScaler, an application delivery controller—he uses one appliance in the office, a second one in the datacenter—to help ensure high availability with advanced load-balancing features. In the event of an outage at either location, users will still be able to securely access their virtual desktops and applications. Citrix ShareFile is also in the mix, making it easy for end users to share and sync documents without resorting to online file-sharing services. Finally, Richardson depends on Citrix GoToAssist. “When employees travel for work, we give them a Microsoft Surface tablet to use on the trip,” he says. “The tablet enables them to access their virtual desktop via Citrix Receiver. If they run into trouble, I just hop onto GoToAssist, take a look at what their tablet’s doing and do my best to help them out.”
If Heinz had renewed its three-year contract with VMware vSphere, the cost would have been approximately $60 000. With Citrix XenServer, there’s no upfront investment and the maintenance is far more affordable—about $600 per socket. “I truly don’t understand why every single nonprofit isn’t already using XenServer,” says Richardson. “It offers the same feature set as VMware. It’s more intuitive. And it doesn’t come with a whole bunch of hidden costs, because it’s a unified platform. For example, it’s no longer necessary for me to buy a third-party SRM [site recovery manager] or invest in a disaster recovery plug-in. That’s all part of the basic XenServer offering. You’re basically getting an enterprise-class package for next to nothing.”
Citrix XenServer offers a single, simple interface for comprehensive visibility across the Heinz infrastructure. “I do everything in that one console, from disaster recovery to storage to infrastructure,” says Richardson. “With VMware, you have to set up a vCenter server to run vCenter. Then you have to use a different console for different functions, and there’s very little consistency across all those interfaces. And if you want to do just about anything beyond the basic setup—deploy an SRM, for example—you’ll need a different copy of VMware to make it happen. Everything is easier with Citrix.”
With XenServer, Richardson can provision new machines in a matter of minutes—a big improvement over previous solutions. He also takes full advantage of XenServer’s 30-day free trial to bring new machines into a lab environment so he can carefully test his latest ideas. When he’s ready to put a project into production, he simply arranges with Citrix to add more servers to his Citrix footprint. “With Citrix, I don’t have to put up with any hassle,” he says. “The free trial doesn’t require you to register or download anything, and they don’t hound you with sales calls while you’re giving the product a try.”
In addition to saving time for IT staff, the Citrix environment improves the productivity of end users across the business. “I’ve heard really positive feedback about how these solutions are making people’s lives easier, enabling them to do more work in less time, and in more places,” says Richardson. “For example, one of our users practically lives on his laptop. When he comes into the office, he uses the laptop alongside a thin client and two monitors. Then when he goes back home, he accesses the exact same workspace using Citrix Receiver. That means he’s spending less time troubleshooting a tricky interface or spotty connection, and more time focusing on the work at hand.”
More Citrix solutions are in the works. For example, The Heinz Endowments is in the early stages of evaluating Citrix XenMobile to support the management of its BYOD initiative. “We’ve stopped providing mobile devices to new employees,” says Richardson. “They choose which device they want to use, then we reimburse them for a portion of their phone bill. If we end up deploying XenMobile, it will provide a few extra layers of security within our BYOD environment. That would give our users the freedom to be mobile without risking the integrity of our most sensitive data, so it should be a win-win.”
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