For GSA, virtual desktop opens the door to more cost savings

By the end of 2014, the General Services Administration expects half of its employees to use a virtual desktop interface (VDI) as a path to using their personal smartphones and tablets on the network.

By end of 2015, 75 percent of employees could be using VDI, which would expand the bring-your-own-device approach to GSA.

“Everything we are doing moving forward is mobile first or at least mobile enabled. Everything we deploy, we are getting to the point, but we are not quite there yet, there still are some more complicated issues such as HSPD-12 integration for a higher assurance app and things like that, but most of what was are doing can be done by mobile device,” said Sonny Hashmi, GSA’s acting chief information officer, who spoke recently at an AFCEA Bethesda, Md. Chapter breakfast in Bethesda. “The VDI is one of the biggest drivers to help us get there.”

He said employees will connect to the guest wireless network, go through a two- factor authentication verification process and then get connected to the VDI.

“Once you are there, it’s all sandboxed away and you can access the whole suite of thick client, thin client, legacy and non-legacy applications and you will be fully productive,” he said. “Mobility is beyond just the Public Building Service play for us. It’s actually how we will operate in the future. It’s saving us $24 million every year. If you look at our business case for moving to headquarters, opening up the walls, moving to a fully sharable space, it’s hard dollars. It’s $24 million a year and it’s leases we don’t have to pay for anymore because everyone is using the shared space. That’s real money — $24 million would let me do a lot more cooler things for my business than just paying the rent.”

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Hashmi said the ultimate goal of VDI is to reduce the complexity of the network and IT, and make services such as helpdesk more standard and less expensive.

“When you have a problem, you’re not asking someone to come by your desk side, you are calling, having a video chat with somebody who may be in a different region, but has full access to your image. VDI helps us get there,” he said. “It also helps us to be more secure because all the patching and so forth is happening on the back end, done once and done well rather than every desktop some may be out of the network, some may be inside the network and have to be updated.”

Hashmi said GSA hasn’t decided yet whether the VDI will work through thin clients or some type of Web browser or app based model.

“Ideally, I’d like to go to a BYOD model rather than thin client. There’s a lot of complexities that come with BYOD and we are working through those,” he said. “I think thin clients are fantastic and in some cases they make sense. But if you are going to be an agency that doesn’t have assigned work stations and requiring people to come in every day, then you want to develop an environment that is device agnostic and thin client is still a device and we want to get rid of devices from the mix instead of adding a device to the mix.”

New open data policy

The move to VDI coincides with GSA’s effort to focus more on mobility and open data.

Hashmi said GSA Administrator Dan Tangherlini issued a new open data policy in February outlining seven principles that promote and mandate how the agency makes information available to the public and other agencies.

Tangherlini made the CIO responsible for storing, managing and protecting all agency data.

“The OCIO will be responsible for facilitating relationships between GSA services and staff offices, as well as external Agencies and stakeholders, in order to allow inter- and intra-agency data sharing in a secure, compliant and timely manner,” the memo stated. “The OCIO has the authority to authorize certain employees within GSA, who meet technical, security and other criteria developed by the OCIO, to have access to GSA data to conduct analytics, even if the data has not completed the adjudication and review process set forth [in the memo]. The results of the analysis will be shared and discussed with the relevant policy and staff offices to ensure the data is being used in context.”

Hashmi said his team is developing an inventory of high valued datasets.

“We want to earn their trust by saying ‘Now that you have shared your data, we can actually do good things with it,'” he said. “It’s actually adding value and it’s not a practice of sharing data just for the sake of sharing data. It’s actually leading to better management, better oversight and better strategic interests between different agencies.”

Hashmi said the policy is part of a new approach across GSA that tries to ensure every business capability or process is mobile enabled.

“You have to design it from day one, somebody can access it from their mobile device and have a full featured experience,” he said. “The whole concept of browser independence; the whole concept of contextual where if you going from a small screen to a big screen you are getting the right experience, that kind of thing needs to be baked into a design.”

Reducing software versions

A third priority for Hashmi of where to find savings is through application rationalization.

Every CIO knows there is duplication among applications and is trying to reduce how many they support.

At GSA, Hashmi said they are looking at a document management system, case management system and identity management system, and even some back end tools such as version management and change management.

“For areas like financial management system, HR system and payroll, we are looking at options to leverage what other agencies have,” he said. “There are opportunities there. … I don’t know what the percentages are. Often our first philosophy is to make sure the mission is getting what they need. It’s a difficult conversation to make sure what the need and want differences would be in the mission.”

Hashmi said GSA already has an inventory of apps, which is a good start.

He said, for example, the agency wants to move its Freedom of Information Act software tool to the FOIA Online tool run by the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Over the last couple of years, we’ve invested heavily in cloud-based application development. We invested in platform-as-a-service and software-as-a-service solutions that allow us to build applications in the cloud at agile speed,” Hashmi said. “We’ve noticed by doing that for most of our mid-tier applications, we’ve cut the total cost of lifecycle ownership per application by over 92 percent. We’ve cut the time to value for each application by about 75 percent. What used to take about six months to deliver for the business now takes four to six weeks in one sprint cycle.”

He said this success is leading GSA down the path to use more of a commercial approach to application development, using open source and open standards and done by non-traditional small businesses.

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