January 31, 2014

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."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
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 ...