The Blog

At the Pentagon, most Army PCs will be replaced with virtual desktops

Over the next year, most of the Army’s IT users at the Pentagon will see the PCs under their desks carted off one-by-one and replaced with virtual desktops as part of an aggressive schedule to implement zero client interfaces.

The Army’s Information Technology Agency, which also handles most of DoD’s day-to- day IT functions in the Pentagon and around the Washington area, thinks it can give users the same look, feel and functionality they get from the computers that are currently on top of or under their desks, but at a fraction of the cost and in a more secure environment. So by the end of 2015, the Army plans to decommission 80 percent of its Pentagon-based PCs.

Most of the work that’s now handled by the hard drives and processors at each of those workstations will be handed off to centralized banks of servers. The individual computers will be replaced by much simpler devices with no real operating system or software — just a network connection, a keyboard and monitor, plus a common access card reader.

“Just think about what we have to go through to manage 18,000 PCs. And that’s just what the Army has in the Pentagon,” said Dan Miller, the project manager for the Army’s virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) effort. “Instead of having to do security updates and patches on each one, you really only need to do it one time on the backend. I don’t think I need to explain how significant that is in terms of the operations and maintenance of our IT systems out there.”

The Army’s 80 percent migration to the VDI platform — which the Army terms desktop platform-as-a-service (DPAS) — is as far is it plans to go, for now, within the Pentagon. The remaining 20 percent of users probably won’t make the move anytime soon, because for various reasons their jobs still require dedicated PCs.

But after it’s deployed the virtual desktops to the Pentagon itself, the Army will spend 2016 replacing its other existing PCs in the D.C. area, including within its large user bases at Fort Belvoir and the Mark Center in Alexandria, Virginia.

VDI testing in progress

Right now, ITA is testing its new VDI infrastructure with a pilot of 250 users, mostly within ITA’s own offices, plus the offices of the Army CIO and the office of the administrative assistant to the secretary of the Army.

“We’re spinning this up rapidly, building out back-end enterprise servicers, procuring zero client equipment, all of that,” Miller told an audience of ITA employees at the Pentagon. “I think you’ll be pleased. I use one every day, and so does [ITA director] Greg Garcia. It’s a very good move for the Army and for DoD.”

The Army has been looking at VDI as an option for several years and had previously planned a drawn-out analysis of alternatives to examine the path ahead, but it was prodded to move more quickly by the DoD’s Joint Staff, which wanted ITA’s help to move its own users in Hampton Roads, Virginia, and at the Pentagon to a centralized and virtualized environment as quickly as possible.

Lt. Gen. Mark Bowman, the Joint Staff’s chief information officer, has been pushing hard to get his organization out of the business of running IT systems, saying that it’s not their core competency. So the Joint Staff became ITA’s first test community for the desktop-as-a-service offering last year.

“The Joint Staff wanted us to get them to a full virtual desktop capability by the end of 2013, so we changed our plans, Tom Sasala, ITA’s chief technology officer told Federal News Radio this summer.

“The Joint Staff gave us the top-level support to get where we wanted to go, so we rapidly did a design, did market surveys and talked to a lot of different vendors to find out what the options were.”

Power, personnel savings expected

Because the Joint Staff was all-in, the project suddenly accelerated. ITA began piloting the Joint Staff’s virtual desktops in April 2013 and started deploying them by that September.

“It was a very rapid turnaround, faster than anything I think I’ve ever seen anything move in DoD, mostly because we got a good, firm commitment from the Pentagon,” Sasala said.

The VDI infrastructure ITA wound up building was flexible in nature, because it needed to be joint to begin with. Sasala said it can support multiple tenants with differing access permissions to different IT systems and at and varying classification levels.

“It was one of the first, if not the first truly multitenant deployments we’ve ever had in the Department of Defense,” he said. “It was a unique challenge to provide that separation of concerns and separation of duties across our different tenants, but we’re working not just with the Army, but also with the Marine Corps to see if they want to join.”

The Army estimates it will save approximately $1 million per year on its electricity bill alone by replacing power-hungry desktop computers with zero- clients. But the biggest payoff is likely going to be in the personnel arena.

During last year’s pilot project with the Joint Staff, the Army says it showed that it could use just six system administrators to provide services to a group of users via the virtual desktop infrastructure, compared to 20-30 full time staff needed to run the data centers that its desktop PCs rely on to support the same user base.


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