Virtualization and Transit

Customers need and expect access to current information. In the world of transit, this means access to updated schedules, notifications of delays or changes, best routes to use and transfers to other systems. And, in a Web 2.0-enabled world, customers expect this information to be available at their fingertips, whenever and wherever they need it, no matter the type of Internet connection or end device they use. Emails or text messages explaining detours and delays, “tweets” telling riders what time the next bus will arrive at their stop, Web access to the latest schedules and information, YouTube videos explaining safety and service features, video feeds showing on-site conditions … Transit must work to incorporate emerging Web technologies into daily operations in order to fit seamlessly into the daily lives of our customers.

The challenge, of course, is applying emerging technologies to information delivery while using legacy infrastructures. According to some industry estimates, many agencies spend more than 70 percent of precious IT resources on these aging systems. Further compounding the problem is a lack of training resources to help employees learn the new technologies.

With the growth of emerging Web technologies as powerful operations and customer service tools, virtualization technologies are gaining favor as the key to managing and optimizing the datacenter. Virtualization can deliver applications to end users and ultimately can improve the experience of both employee and customer alike — without a complete overhaul of the legacy infrastructure. Virtualization also improves secure access to networks and data, and can help the transit organization to “go green” in new and more pronounced ways.

Optimizing the datacenter
The datacenter is the heart and soul of transportation technology, which depends on it to provide a quality service to the customer. The ability to leverage emerging Web technologies to deliver better, faster, safer data and applications to both employees and customers ultimately depends on the ability of the datacenter to support those technologies. However, the patchwork solution of just adding more physical servers to increase capacity and facilitate emerging technologies creates server sprawl. These datacenters become overloaded with servers that, most likely, are not even running near full capacity though they place a huge strain on personnel, as well as financial and environmental resources. I am aware of one server setup for a specific application that used only 7 percent of the server’s capacity. Although probably a good decision at the time, it resulted in an unnecessary waste in today’s virtual world.

Fortunately, worldwide averages fare a little better, with about 40 percent of server capacity actually in use. But this still represents a huge investment in a greatly underutilized infrastructure.

The traditional datacenter requires enough power and cooling alone to make it a significant drain on the bottom line. And, because we often have different servers running different versions of the same applications, we create an unstable environment in need of additional time and resources just to keep everything up and running — which only compounds that poor server performance. All of this adds up to a datacenter that inhibits, instead of facilitating, improved service to the business and the customer.

Virtualization technologies can unleash the power of the datacenter, optimizing datacenter performance while improving agility and minimizing maintenance hours and costs. Data remains protected in the datacenter, safely behind the firewall, while images of the data are transmitted to end users over the network. The end user experiences the data and applications as if he or she is accessing them directly but in reality, only mouse clicks and pixels actually travel on the network. All computing is executed on the server, in the datacenter — a more secure way to handle sensitive data while improving the ability to push information out to customers and ultimately improve customer service.

Virtualization technologies have already been successfully implemented in the transportation and transit arenas. The State of Mississippi Department of Transportation (MDOT) has employees scattered across the state in branch offices, small project offices and out in the field, so the underperformance of client/server applications created a real problem. The increasing use of graphics-intensive geographic information systems (GIS) solutions and data-heavy construction applications required a large amount of information to be downloaded onto the client device over the network. Also, inconsistencies across various local servers led to an unstable environment in which all servers were different and often running different versions of the same application. This heterogeneous architecture required more time and resources than was necessary.

To streamline the existing IT system, MDOT deployed a virtualization solution that centralized the server and allowed for enterprise-wide application delivery. This removed the need to assign IT staff in each district office. “Now we control everything centrally,” says Beth Ann Hinds, senior systems specialist for MDOT. And, the virtualization solution gives mobile workers more freedom to work with high-performance application success.

Server virtualization transforms the datacenter from sprawling and expensive server farms into a well-managed, energy-efficient hub. By using a single server to process multiple virtual machines handling different applications, transportation entities can increase server utilization rates while running far fewer servers. This cuts down on the power needed to operate, cool and maintain datacenter equipment by as much as 75 percent and multiplies efficiency tenfold, according to some studies. Transit organizations can use virtualization to get the capacity and availability they need to push out information via email, texts, tweets or any other technology that gives customers what they want: up-to-the-minute information at their fingertips.

But virtualization’s benefits for mass transit don’t stop there.

Access and ease for end users and IT teams
Desktops, laptops and other end devices — including the ubiquitous BlackBerry and iPhone — now act as the access point for employees and customers alike. Employees have to access enormous amounts of transit data, including fat GIS files, to properly serve customers wherever they may be. And customers today want to access more data themselves or, better yet, have that data pushed out to them via email, texts or other Web 2.0 technologies.

Desktop virtualization enables fast access to data and applications from just about anywhere, over any network, without expensive hardware and the need to spend valuable time touching every end device for patches, upgrades and new software installations. Instead, the IT department handles these once time-consuming changes at the server level, in the datacenter — saving weeks of man-hours and freeing up the IT staff to work on other key services.

Back at the Mississippi Department of Transportation, leveraging the latest applications and updates to more than 100 locations meant that the IT team had to physically visit each office to install applications and updates on each local server and each client device. For mobile MDOT employees using laptops or even BlackBerry devices, IT staff members had to physically locate or recall the devices in order to complete administrative tasks. MDOT’s virtualization solution changed all that.

A virtualized desktop performs completely independent of the access device, running on ultra-reliable servers in the datacenter. Unlike the traditional desktop, a virtualized desktop is available to run whenever the user requests access from any device or desktop appliance. The technology enables users to quickly log on to their personalized virtual desktop and begin working — ensuring immediate access to data and immediate productivity.

Through their current virtualization solution, MDOT’s IT team delivers a desktop of about 15 applications to 1,000 employees across Mississippi. These applications include Site Manager for construction and materials management, the Performance Series financial management system, a contract administration solution and Oracle and Sybase databases. Because applications process on the server with only minimal data traveling on the network, applications can be delivered to desktops and BlackBerry devices alike. Employees get the data they need to serve customers faster than ever, with no need to use a specific device at a fixed location.

Since desktop virtualization transforms the end user’s device into a simple access tool, the refresh cycle for costly desktops and laptops is increased by years. According to a Gartner Research study, the five-year total cost of ownership for a desktop computer without virtualization averages more than 10 times the original purchase price. So the ability of the virtual desktop to impact the bottom line becomes immediately evident.

Going greener with virtualization
Going green is no longer a sign of good planetary citizenship. As nonrenewable resources become scarcer and energy costs skyrocket, taking a green approach to IT management is simply good business — not to mention the only way to address federal and state mandates intended to mitigate the issue.

IT arguably takes the biggest hit, with energy consumption in the datacenter reaching all-time highs and with proliferating computer hardware fated to become e-waste. For every kilowatt of energy consumed by a server, roughly another kilowatt is used to cool that same server. Multiply that by the growing number of servers needed to accommodate transit IT expansion and the impact can be staggering for transportation and transit authorities. Conservation of electricity, space and equipment seems to work at cross-purposes with essential functions and missions.

By making virtualization solutions the backbone of the technology infrastructure, green initiatives can be addressed in a way that also improves performance across the entire IT environment. The properly implemented virtualization solution can provide two meaningful green benefits: reduction of the datacenter’s carbon footprint and longer lifecycles for end devices. The best waste is to have none at all.

Shrinking the datacenter’s carbon footprint
The move toward IT centralization and consolidation has created a power surge in the datacenter. The bulk of energy consumption lies in running the servers, air conditioning and peripherals at the heart of the IT infrastructure. As a green IT solution, virtualization reduces the number of physical servers and optimizes existing servers to improve performance while cutting the power needed to operate, cool and maintain datacenter equipment.

Creating longer, greener desktop lifecycles
The desktop can present a bigger green IT challenge. With a single network server supporting about 200 devices, energy consumption in the datacenter will escalate as these machines continue to proliferate. Each end device draws a lot of power on its own, even when in sleep or standby mode. And more powerful machines consume more energy. The cradle-to-grave environmental impact of end devices poses another concern, especially when it comes to replacing and disposing of obsolete machines every two years or so. With desktop virtualization, however, desktops last longer and can be replaced by less costly and more energy-efficient thin clients as part of an extended lifecycle.

Managing access and protecting data in the virtual environment
Secure access to transportation data and applications means protecting the IT network from both unintentional and malicious events. In recent years, professional hackers have not been behind the biggest government security breaches involving sensitive information; instead, lost or stolen laptops, or even inadvertent downloads, have been the culprit. This creates a delicate balancing act as IT departments work to protect their networks and their sensitive data while delivering access to that same information for people who need a fast, robust end-user experience.

Enter the virtualization solution. End-to-end virtualization means that computing occurs only at the server level. The data that the end user sees onscreen never resides on the desktop or other end device. From a data perspective, that desktop or laptop is disposable — a theft or loss does not threaten any data because everything resides safely in the datacenter.

Due to the number of outside contractors employed for transit projects, transportation IT networks can be particularly vulnerable to accidental malware events or even intentional download of non-agency-approved software. Already taxed IT departments can be overwhelmed by the Herculean task of managing access for contractors that come and go on a weekly basis. Virtualization, however, gives IT administrators a single point of control. Organizations can manage access and actions based on both the user and also the end device, providing better risk, security and compliance management.

Another option to consider with a virtual desktop solution is no desktop. Imagine a program in which employees bring their own personal computer — a “BYOPC” environment — and are responsible for the upkeep of the device. Some employers even provide an allowance for each employee to purchase and maintain their own computer. This approach eliminates the need for IT resources to keep the current inventory of devices up to date and allows employees the freedom to choose the computer that best suits their needs.

In this model, the virtual desktop delivers business applications and data — securely housed in the datacenter — to the employee’s computer. At the same time, the employee has access to their personal applications. This concept eliminates the need for different devices to use at work and home. The benefits are many: reduced e-waste, greater flexibility and less administration for devices.

All roads lead to virtualization
Like any other organization with a large IT component, mass transit has to examine the entire infrastructure to determine the best ways to improve capacity and performance. The key is to approach the IT infrastructure with an eye for solutions that will ultimately enable better customer service. Technologically, our customers are growing and changing in new and exciting ways. But it is up to transit to meet and exceed customer expectations in order to flourish.

Reducing operating costs of the datacenter while ramping up capacity, as well as optimizing the desktop and keeping a tighter rein on access management, will allow us to deliver the technology services that transit customers expect today and into the future. Integrated virtualization solutions for the server and desktop work with existing infrastructure to help move data and better serve the customer — which is, in the end, what it’s all about.

Doug Couto chairs the Transportation Research Board’s Information Systems and Technology Committee.