Site visit: Desktop virtualisation lets Red Bee tell multiple desktops to buzz off

Meet Michael Tomkins, Head of Technology at Red Bee Media, and learn why his team had four PCs on each desk ... and how desktop virtualisation has helped cut that down to zero.

Michael Tomkins, Head of Technology at Red Bee Media, had a unique challenge.

The company creates subtitles for live television and DVDs, a task that sees its staff use four different applications that Tomkins says “don’t play well together.” The nature of the company’s work also means that physical security is important, as a new episode of a TV show or DVD simply cannot reside on a network segment from which it could leak to the outside world.

The company therefore equipped some of its staff with four PCs on each desk, one for each application and each connected to the appropriate segment of the LAN. Each PC had its own screen, keyboard and mouse!

The situation was clearly unsustainable for any number of reasons and the company decided desktop virtualisation was the way around the problem.

Tomkin’s vision was to create a virtual desktop image for each of the four applications Red Bee’s staff needed and then deliver that to a desktop.

The eventual solution is a little more elegant, as the company has been able to create a desktop image that brings the specialist applications it needs into a single desktop image it can propagate to any of 42 workstations. Those workstations also boot into an environment that allows Internet access and some other tasks, but does not offer access to the secure parts of the LAN.

There’s one exception to this rule: staff can cut and paste text between the secure and open environments, which helps greatly with captioning.

VMware View 3 makes the whole setup possible by letting the company create its desired virtual desktop and propagating it as needed.

Red Bee has not, however, managed to do away with PCs. The company’s applications require so much grunt that it was not possible to have a server deliver virtual desktops. Instead, the company has gone with blade PCs, one per user. These live in the data center, leaving just a comms box on each desk ... along with a lovely 30-inch monitor that left us with a bad case of monitor envy.

Even with a PC for each staffer, the company still does without some niceties like local antivirus, as some of the video editing applications need to operate in real time to get dialog and captions properly aligned. These apps are such CPU hogs that there are no processor cycles or RAM to spare, so anti-virus gets pushed out elsewhere in the network.

An IBM DS4700 SAN with around four terabytes of storage sits beneath it all and has about 900 GB to spare thanks to the use of a single virtual desktop image rather than one per user.

Tomkins worked with Woodbridge IT on the project and declares himself pretty happy with its progress, given that work on the new virtualisation setup kicked off in early December 2008 and wrapped mid-January 2009.

There’s plenty more to come, too. Tomkins showed SearchCIO ANZ around his current data centre, then led us into a massive room with chalk marks on the wall indicating the soon-to-be-installed raised floor that will house a new, bigger data center for some new services the company has up its sleeve . In the centre of the room are several small concrete plinths about 30cm high and two or three meters long. Tomkins said these plinths contain drains and are in place so that water will have to reach 30cm deep before it starts to drain downwards, a measure to prevent floods reaching equipment on the floor below.

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