How Merrill Lynch Plans To Virtualize Half Its Desktops - InformationWeek

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How Merrill Lynch Plans To Virtualize Half Its Desktops

It's a big bet on emerging technology that's driven by IT management cost savings.

Merrill Lynch sees two broad strategies for desktop virtualization: the "fat-images" approach it uses today, and the stateless strategy where it's headed.

The fat-images approach, essentially a thin-client variation, isn't all that new. The operating system and applications are combined into an image that's stored on a data center server and shown to a dumbed-down computer via the Remote Desktop Protocol or Citrix's more robust ICA protocol. Merrill Lynch will use this approach through year's end to virtualize a few thousand desktops, mostly in call centers and for employees who mainly do word processing and Web browsing. Advantages include centralized data storage and better physical security, says Lambert, adding that this is the virtualization she's asked about most.

In the next few months, though, Merrill Lynch will begin adopting the stateless approach, a more flexible combination of operating system and app virtualization that it will first apply to thin clients, then to high-powered PCs, including those used by its mobile workforce. It's only by adopting this stateless virtualization approach that Merrill expects breakthrough cost savings.

Stateless means that every time an employee boots up, the data center creates an impermanent virtual machine from a small set of master operating system images and application icons and sends it to the PC. The applications are served up separately, as the icons are clicked. That means employees get only the software they need based on who they are, what privileges they have, and what they're trying to do.

Virtual Vendors
Application Virtualization for app streaming, Windows Server manages user profiles
ESX hypervisor hosts client OS in data center
Red Hat on non-VMware servers, free Linux with KVM hypervisor for client operating system on PCs
Connection broker assigns and manages virtual machines
Additional connection broker functions, Spice protocol for application and OS streaming
The problem with fat images is that applications are installed with an operating system in the data center, and if they screw up the registry or require patches, someone has to fix it. That patching is more efficient because it's done in the data center instead of a PC, but every VM still has to be patched and managed just as normal desktops and laptops would. "When you go to the stateless model, that totally vanishes," Birnbaum says. "There's no more of this registry corruption stuff because you're not installing apps on a per-instance basis, and there's not 50 instances to manage. Patching gets much easier because I patch at the central place and then everybody who runs the apps gets the patched versions."

Merrill Lynch will use software from Microsoft, Red Hat, VMware, and two startups, Desktone and Qumranet, to execute its virtualization strategy. Citrix Systems, whose XenApp Merrill Lynch also will test, is the other big player in desktop virtualization, with probably the broadest suite of tools.

Not all the software is up to the quality that Birnbaum would like, especially in VM management. For now, software called a connection broker (which Desktone and Qumranet provide) can do basic monitoring of CPU and memory to figure out where new VMs should be allocated in the data center, but they can't dynamically place VMs based on workloads, or predict workloads. Vendors are working on it, but Birnbaum calls what he's seen so far "weak."

On Merrill Lynch's thin clients, a connection broker assigns clients to available servers in the data center and figures out which application and system customizations to use based on a user profile. To manage configurations, it uses Windows Server and custom scripts, but it's looking at AppSense or Citrix because "what we have today doesn't work well," Birnbaum says. The resulting VM runs on top of VMware ESX or Linux KVM hypervisors, providing the operating system image and icons that show up in the start menu or desktop. Microsoft Application Virtualization streams the application to the virtual operating system image on the server.

Merrill Lynch isn't embarking on its stateless virtualization strategy yet because it's waiting for Microsoft's next version of Application Virtualization, since it can better handle Excel plug-ins.

The next big opportunity Merrill Lynch sees after stateless thin clients is virtualizing high-powered PCs.

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