A prison's virtual desktops keep inmates plugged in

Using virtual desktops and a private cloud, the Justice Department of Belgium -- a Best of VMworld Europe 2010 winner -- has given prison inmates access to services without sacrificing security and control.

When inmates at a Belgium prison began to smuggle in technologies to get access to the Web, the Justice Department of Belgium knew it had to do something.

Before the project launched as a proof of concept, prisoners purchased their own PCs, according to Benny Goedbloed, the general manager of IT infrastructure EPI at the Department of Justice in Belgium. Internet access was prohibited, but inmates still found ways of smuggling in 3G cards.

It's our aim to roll this out to all prisons across Belgium, eventually.


Benny Goedbloed, general manager of IT infrastructure EPI at the Justice Department of Belgium,

So the department shifted its model and turned to a private cloud and virtual desktop strategy. By doing so, the department kept costs under control and improved security while still offering up services that inmates desperately wanted. "This prison environment doesn't exist in any other country in Europe -- or the world," Goedbloed said.

Indeed, this blend of technologies and innovative use of virtusalistion garnered the department a Best of VMworld Europe 2010 award in the desktop virtualisation category.

Shifting the model
As the prison sought solutions to its security problem, it originally moved to renting PCs, which gave inmates PC access but also monitored and controlled Web use. But this proved too expensive to manage and monitor, he said. Plus it did not solve the security issue at hand. With its new cloud and desktop focused strategy, the department now has the control it needs to monitor what inmates view on their PCs, while still giving them access to the resources inmates want.

So too, the prison has rolled out new electronic offerings that were previously available to inmates only face to face. Classroom studies, for example, have become online e-learning programmes. "The private cloud enables inmates to easily access the prison's services; for example they can order canteens, contact social services, etc.," he added.

Previously the prison did not own an IT infrastructure, so the data centre had to be built from scratch. With VMware vSphere 4.1 for servers and VMware View for clients, the department's IT shop manages HP T5540 thin clients and HP Proliant ML370 servers in its new on-premise data centre. While the department began with 100 virtual desktops, it expects this number to increase to approximately 4,000 virtual desktops once the project is rolled out to prisons throughout Belgium.


Virtual desktops for personalised environments
Even though the department has greater control over inmates' access to applications, its new infrastructure enables greater flexibility and portability. Because the IT team chose a virtual desktop strategy, inmates can take their desktops and applications with them if they are transferred to another prison.

"If an inmate is in the middle of an e-learning programme, for example, they can take their environment with them and continue the programme at a different prison," Goedbloed said.

The cloud can be accessed by inmates' personal PCs and also by dumb terminals, PDAs and smartphones if needed.

The project kicked off last year with the proof of concept, and the data centre is currently located within the prison but will be moved to Brussels as the project expands.

"It's our aim to roll this out to all prisons across Belgium, eventually," Goedbloed said. "So it will be centralised and managed from a new data centre location in Brussels. From there we will be able to manage all of the prisons services from one place."

The challenges
According to Goedbloed, the major challenge of the project was not technical but rather a matter of priorities. The department had to decide which services went into the cloud first.

This prison environment doesn't exist in any other country in Europe -- or the world.


Benny Goedbloed, general manager of IT infrastructure EPI at the Justice Department of Belgium,

"We had a good thought about which services we wanted to offer the inmates first, but all the prison's departments were interested in making their services the first, as this model could save them work and budget. We decided on the e-learning programme, which offers education and training services to the inmates," he said.

Inmates can now access their dossiers via the cloud instead of having to be escorted to the court. Previously it could cost up to 50,000 euros to transport and guard just one inmate to the court, just so they could read their dossier. But now they can access this online via the prison's private cloud and the inmate's virtual desktop.

The specs
To create the infrastructure, the Department of Justice chose HP Proliant ML370 servers and HP T5540 thin clients for hardware.

For software, it opted for vSphere 4.0. The project uses an HP storage area network (SAN) for and a 1 GB switched local area network with network switches provided by Avaya. The Department has also investigated VMware Chargeback software to calculate the total cost in which to charge partners.

Check out the rest of our VMworld Europe 2010 coverage, including the Best of VMworld Europe 2010 winners and more news coverage.

Kayleigh Bateman is the Site Editor of SearchVirtualDataCentre.co.UK.

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