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Aetna Turbocharges Virtual Desktop Initiative

Faced with offshoring its virtual desktop infrastructure to achieve necessary gains, Aetna takes a multi-prong approach to keep the platform in-house.

While virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) offers considerable advantages for enterprises of any size, many organizations are discovering a significant drawback to the technology is the relative lack of tools for optimizing VDI environments. Such was the case for Aetna as it began moving thousands of employees onto a VDI platform in mid-2011.

"We had a stronger embrace of VDI by the business than we expected," explains Alan Pawlak, executive director and head of client services for the Hartford, Conn., insurer. "As we were building out the infrastructure we learned we couldn't get enough VDI users onto a hub [a collection of servers and storage] to create the necessary financial gain based on the performance and uptime we required."

To complicate matters, the VDI initiative was funded through savings. This meant any optimization solution would need to supply enough savings to offset costs.

Finding no off-the-shelf options, Pawlak and his team considered offshoring the VDI environment altogether. But this avenue added unacceptable complexity and expense. "So, in early 2012, we decided to work with our infrastructure partners to see whether an infrastructure redesign, using a combination of newer technologies, could work," he says.

Alan Pawlak, Aetna
Alan Pawlak, Aetna

Although Aetna is in a three-year refresh cycle for mission-critical applications, the insurer discovered the latest innovations included improved VDI support. "For example, storage systems designed prior to 2011 weren't engineered for VDI environments," says Pawlak. "This led us to adopt several different updated product lines from our storage partner NetApp [Sunnyvale, Calif.]."

[Read more on Aetna's strategy in an interview with its innovation leader]

It was a similar story for Aetna's HP (Palo Alto) and Cisco (San Jose, Calif.), servers. "Both partners had made significant improvements in the blade servers for VDI," Pawlak says.

Despite the expected gains from integrating VDI-enabled servers and storage, Aetna estimated the overall infrastructure would still fall short. "Refreshing 60% of the hardware with like equipment would ensure about a 15% improvement in hub capacity," says Pawlak. "But, to get the required 20% to 30% improvements in our overall VDI platform, we needed to optimize the remaining 40% of our existing hardware."

In the summer of 2012, an industry peer introduced Pawlak to VMTurbo (Burlington, Mass.), a tool for optimizing virtualized platforms, which Aetna added to the VDI redesign plan. "Ironically, my team had also found VMTurbo and brought a copy into our testing environment," he says. "Anytime your engineers are already onboard with your desired direction, that's a big win."

With the roadmap completed, Aetna began implementing the VDI redesign in late 2012. By then, the initiative also included an upgrade in VMware (Palo Alto, Calif.) and the use of two existing management tools, Stratusphere UX by Liquidware Labs (Alpharetta, Ga.) and Splunk (San Francisco, Calif.).

"Liquidware provides deeper analysis of the VDI environment so we could understand how the VMTurbo tool would optimize resources," explains Pawlak. "Splunk supplies visibility into management and monitoring of the backend."

With so many leading-edge technologies in the mix it's unsurprising the biggest challenge was, and continues to be, getting all of the pieces to play well together. "A key reason we use Liquidware is its independence," Pawlak says. "It can determine what technology is at fault in a way that doesn't generate a lot of finger-pointing."

Still, the VDI redesign was successfully generating the necessary efficiencies by mid-2013. "Overall, we gained 30% to 40% improvement in hub capacity," says Pawlak. "Our multi-vendor infrastructure redesign enabled us to go from 7,500 employees on the platform before the initiative to 27,000 today, while simultaneously achieving our performance, automation and ROI goals."

From a big-picture perspective, the initiative has helped meet the insurer's customer experience objectives. "A large portion of our VDI users are customer service representatives," explains Pawlak. "By delivering faster, higher-quality systems we're improving their response times with Aetna policy holders and prospects."

Moving forward, Pawlak expects to derive even more efficiencies. "There are inherent inefficiencies we can't solve until the tools mature," he says. "Fortunately, we're starting to see that happen."

Nonetheless, the redesign is a home run. "We've developed an in-house platform that is competitive with external providers who offer hosted Desktop as a Service [DaaS]," says Pawlak. "We have a flexible and affordable environment -- within our existing footprint -- that enables us to meet rapidly-changing business needs."

"And," he continues, "we created the environment here, in the U.S., rather than offshoring it. We're very proud of that."

Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio

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Anne R Gabriel
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Anne R Gabriel,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/11/2014 | 5:50:39 PM
re: Aetna Turbocharges Virtual Desktop Initiative
Appreciate your insights, altg. It's true that large-scale VDI projects aren't for the faint of heart and, like all leading-edge tech, good partnerships are key.
altg
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altg,
User Rank: Apprentice
3/5/2014 | 3:27:49 PM
re: Aetna Turbocharges Virtual Desktop Initiative
the benefits of VDI are massive, but you are right you need to work with the right partner as there are masses of pitfalls and hidden costs that will plague your efforts if your cloud provider is learnign at your expense. We got around this issue by working with a longterm established provider http://www.rtwhosting.com - interested to know who you guys use as your IT partner on VDI projects
Anne R Gabriel
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Anne R Gabriel,
User Rank: Apprentice
2/4/2014 | 9:36:01 PM
re: Aetna Turbocharges Virtual Desktop Initiative
I agree. There is competitive advantage to be gained by dumping desktops in favor of the VDI model - at this time it just shouldn't be undertaken by the faint of heart as the tools and best practices are still being developed. The potential rewards are so much greater that the tools, as Alan says, will catch up. The big question, of course, is how quickly. We'll all have to stay tuned!
KBurger
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KBurger,
User Rank: Author
1/31/2014 | 6:59:11 PM
re: Aetna Turbocharges Virtual Desktop Initiative
The efficiency improvements cited by Alan Pawluk are very impressive and could help many insurers make business cases for large-scale virtualization initiatives (regardless of the vendors involved). But this case study also shows there's a lot of complexity and things to figure out on the road to simplification and improved efficiency. Down the road it would be interesting to learn about the range of business benefits gained -- not just efficiency and cost savings, but potentially improvements in product introduction, speed to market, customer service, etc.
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