Established in 1967, Home Properties (NYSE:HME) is a real estate investment trust (REIT) that owns, operates, develops, acquires, and rehabilitates apartment communities, primarily along the East Coast of the United States.
Home Properties owns 118 apartment communities staffed by property management and maintenance personnel. In the past, the company’s IT department maintained the 550 computers at these remote locations desktop-by-desktop. “Upgrading our fleet meant having feet on the street,” says Elmer Gordner, network administrator for Home Properties. “A technician would have to travel to each office, image the computers and upgrade them manually. We needed to change that.” A planned upgrade to Microsoft Windows 7 prompted Home Properties to explore other approaches that would help with future upgrades and replacements. Desktop virtualization offered clear benefits in centralized management, but the company’s widely dispersed, WAN-reliant desktop environment posed challenges for server-based computing. Client virtualization offered the right approach for the company’s needs.
“We looked at Citrix XenClient and realized it would work well in our environment,” says Gordner. To build a business case, the company compared three approaches for its Windows 7 upgrade: a traditional manual deployment, a managed approach using Microsoft deployment tools, and deploying the upgrade with XenClient. “XenClient made the most sense as far as cost with regard to the deployment strategy as well as future update and support capabilities,” Gordner says. The company’s core applications are now delivered to its 550 remote computers as part of XenClient virtual desktops, including web-based property management software (constrained to a very specific browser version), email, and other business apps. The virtual desktops run on a mix of newly purchased desktop computers and up to three-year-old legacy computers.
Before, even centrally managed PC management software had proven time-consuming and labor-intensive due to inherent challenges with managing physical machines versus virtual machines. “Between computers that didn't get the updates and computers that failed on the updates, we always had to have technicians get into individual systems for remediation,” says Gordner. “One of the main cost differentiators for XenClient is its highly-accurate software deployments—compared with a failure rate as high as 40 percent for native PC management. With virtual machines, updates are done and tested on the central golden image, deployed to a small subset for further testing and then deployed to the entire fleet.”
Centralized software deployment with XenClient has turned out to be a much more reliable process. “There’s a significant savings in the fact that I can sit down in front of the XenClient Synchronizer, install Firefox on the golden image, push it out and be done with it,” Gordner says. “Our alternative with a traditional PC environment would have been to pay a contractor to design and push the install out through a PC management system knowing there would be a significant rate of failure, or spend 15–20 minutes remotely updating each of the 550 computers manually.” Bandwidth restrictions mean that Gordner must “throttle” delivery of updated images through features in XenClient Synchronizer to minimize impact on other network traffic and avoid incurring extra charges associated with bursting network capacity.
“I set the throttle to the right balance of speed and time of day, and we haven’t had to touch it again,” Gordner says. “The occasional instability of some remote WAN links no longer makes the update process fail. When a link goes down, the process simply moves on to the next system, and when the link reestablishes, the process picks up where it left off. Ultimately, we can complete entire deployments more quickly and with no surprises.”
Microsoft updates and non-Microsoft software—such as Adobe Reader, Java and Firefox—are now upgraded more easily and accurately as well. Gordner indicates that Home Properties has realized a significant overall time savings in desktop management activities, resulting in a decrease in disruption and an overall increase in productivity for end users: “No matter how many updates are applied to the centrally-managed image, only one reboot is needed, and that can be scheduled during off hours.”
During the seven-month time period of February through August 2013, Home Properties experienced a 56 percent reduction in support calls compared to the same time period in 2012. The number of logged incidents decreased from 442 to 192, and when hardware failures occurred, end users no longer experienced complete data loss. “Prior to deploying XenClient, our remote computers were not backed up, and did not have a reliable network drive,” Gordner says. “But by utilizing the XenClient backup, we have recovered 10 systems to pre-failure state.” Gordner has also found that the XenClient static image leads to faster problem resolution. The Home Properties Desktop Support staff now has far fewer variables to account for when trying to determine root causes, and the only drifts in configuration that occur are related to user profiles.
XenClient is also helping Home Properties keep its computers safer from virus damage. Before installing web filtering software, the company was plagued by as many as 100 viruses each month. These did significant damage, forcing Gordner’s group to clean or reimage each infected computer. During a recent transition from one web filtering application to another, 15 of the company’s computers were infected by viruses in a two-week period. Because XenClient is a bare-metal hypervisor running under the operating system, the affected computers were restored to their pristine state by simply rebooting and, in some cases, recreating the end users’ profile. “Without XenClient, those 15 computers would have been shipped back to our central office for reimaging with possible data loss—I have no doubt of that,” says Gordner.
Gordner expects XenClient to play an important role in Home Properties moving forward: “As Home Properties continues to acquire new properties, it will be much easier to deploy new desktops using XenClient than a traditional system. It's going to cut the time greatly—I’m really looking forward to that.” In the meantime, the Citrix solution is making a tremendous difference for both the company’s people and its IT group. “The most important person in our business is the one in the field in front of customers, renting our apartments—that's the population that is using XenClient,” Gordner says. “Since our implementation, these people have been quieter about issues related to printer configuration, slow machines, and corrupted applications. The end users only see Windows 7 and probably feel that the new OS is why they don’t have to spend time on the phone with a technician as much. The centrally-managed golden image is a huge benefit to our business, and I don't think there’s any other product that would allow us to create, manage, update, and deploy a golden image better.”
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