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Security for virtualized datacentres

Sysadmin blog In user experience management little things can make a big difference to what they think of their desktop.

I provision several types of desktop. The first, and most numerous, are shiny new Wyse thin clients. For experience management, they're neat, because they unify the user experience.

I have just finished imaging and shipping the last of them out to the various locations; the first time that all of the company’s VDI users, from CEO to shippers, will have identical hardware.

Wyse clients are designed to be centrally imaged. I have a “dev unit” beside me, on which I build my master image. When I am satisfied, I tell the Wyse server to take an image of that system and push it out to all of the clients it controls. The server ensures the names of the systems are kept the same post-image - so changing an entire fleet of desktops overnight is trivial.

You can’t write to the file system. There is a small ramdisk, but if the user manages to break the applications I have installed, then a simple reboot will return the unit to provisioned defaults. There isn’t a great deal my users can do to customise the device, and if they succeed in changing anything, those changes will be erased on next boot. I'm in charge: the user experience is whatever I tell it to be.

I had expected the users to hate it, but the opposite has proven true.

Some of the changes I have introduced are minor, but seem to have a disproportionate psychological effect on my users. I set a corporate desktop background - knocked together in Photoshop by one of the other sysadmins - for the first time, so that I could figure out how to make changes using Wyse’s maddening package management without using GPOs. I eventually learned that the package management was completely unnecessary but, hey, the corporate background had sort of grown on me.

I added shortcuts in the start menu to corporate intranet sites and the new payroll site. I set the home page to the company's home page. I did it to teach myself how my new toy worked, but the end user reaction was astonishing; they told me it made them feel like they were working for a completely different (and larger) company.

It's even odder when you realise most users only see the interface on the clients for a couple of minutes a day. As VDI users they spend the majority of their time remote accessing their virtual machines. I was encouraged, so I refined my rollout image with the latest Flash player, VLC, MS Office document viewers and other tidbits to make the clients usable in their own right for minor tasks. They started life as nothing more than a box from which to use RDP; they have become a locked-down net-top that provides a minimum, identical level of functionality.

Enthused, I reviewed the ghost images for my non-thin client platforms. The machines are all logged in by a generic user, used by lots of people all day, so creating a corporate look and feel with identical software versions makes sense.

One class of these systems are “client machines". Customers bring in images that are several hundred gigs in size, and transfer it to our servers on-site because, not being crazy, they don't do it by ADSL. Again, much approval.

You need to deal with individual apps. A handful of users, who rarely use a computer, rely on browser-based Outlook Web Access (OWA) to get their corporate email.

Plenty of people complain about Exchange, but with Exchange 2010, OWA provides a user experience that doesn’t feel different from Outlook. Migrating to Exchange 2010 provides the OWA users with mail that doesn’t make them feel like second class citizens.

We provide Java-based ordering software to our customers to be used from their businesses. It wasn't designed as part of a public kiosk. We had a problem - contact information for the user automatically saves when it is closed. The next user opens the program as the previous user. We'd spend all day checking that the correct orders are given to the correct customers.

We needed a simple solution that didn't require that our customers need to think. We created a default “blank user”. Fire up the ordering software on our client machines, it wipes any previous user settings, and copies the blank user configuration.

These are simple changes which make all the difference. Virtually all elements of user experience management can be dealt with through imaging, pushed down through a group policy or scripted. They won't work without user support and training, so I'll deal with that next. ®

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