As the largest provider of medical care in Central Oregon, with four hospitals and more than 120 medical providers, as well as the region’s largest employer with over 3,800 caregivers in total, St. Charles Health System plays a pivotal role in this burgeoning community.
When St. Charles decided to streamline service delivery for all of its units, the IT team identified the need for real-time visibility into performance across their physical and virtual infrastructure, and selected eG Enterprise as their solution to help ensure top performance for their clinical end-users. Wendy Howard, Infrastructure Engineer with St. Charles, describes the project as a “massive technology overhaul.” The project goals included:
Transition from physical desktops to virtual desktops via Citrix XenDesktop
Upgrading the Citrix XenApp 4.5 and 6.5 farms to the latest version
Adopting Citrix Provisioning Services and Microsoft App-V for images and application virtualization
Widespread physical IT expansion and component replacement
Richard Hussain with Denali Advanced Integration was engaged to advise and manage the project, and together Denali and St. Charles selected eG Enterprise to help ensure quality service and high patient satisfaction through this major IT transformation. Once implemented, they have not looked back.
“eG Enterprise is something we can’t live without. It is a fantastic tool, and it gives me confidence that our systems are running as they should. We have been able to use eG Enterprise to quantify performance improvements in areas that we were struggling with before. And with a few changes we were able to quickly see that we had a 50% improvement in user login times.“ – Wendy Howard, Infrastructure Engineer, St. Charles Health System
I like the ability to monitor just about every component you can think of in this entire organization and be able to show it on one single dashboard. It’s just like, wow. It’s really an excellent product. – Richard Hussain, Solutions Architect, Virtualization, Denali Advanced Integration
The success of any IT initiative today is tied to the end user experience. If the user experience is poor, in the best case, efficiencies and productivity will drop, users will complain, help desk tickets will increase, and the IT team will scramble to solve problems in response. In the worst case, users will want IT to rollback the new technologies they have introduced – be it virtual desktops, cloud computing, or virtual storage – to regain the performance levels they are used to and rely on to do their jobs.
The importance of user experience is highlighted by a recent Gartner survey of enterprise customers. 49% of respondents indicated that they had adopted Application Performance Management (APM) solutions to improve the quality of the customer/user experience. Among the critical dimensions of APM, end-user experience monitoring was rated number one.
Also, in a recent eG Innovations webinar we asked the 200+ attendees, “What are the key challenges you face in your VDI deployment?” The results were clear:
End-user experience is by far the biggest issue on everyone’s mind, so we thought we’d take a detailed look into what we all know is the ultimate measurement for success and failure, no matter what application or silo you’re responsible for.
In performance management circles, there has been a lot of emphasis on monitoring, reporting and improving the user experience for web applications in recent years However, among all the different applications in use in an enterprise, providing a great user experience through virtualized applications and desktops – whether Citrix XenApp/XenDesktop or VMware Horizon with View – is among the most performance-sensitive challenges, and probably the most complex to manage.
So let’s break it down. This article is the first of a short series to discuss how to deliver a consistently great user experience from a performance management standpoint, starting with Citrix/VDI. First, what is it, exactly?
What Constitutes User Experience for Citrix/VDI?
Latency or response time is the most commonly referenced user experience metric in Citix/VDI, but there are many other factors that contribute to the user experience. Let’s look at the different tasks that a user performs when accessing a Citrix application or a virtual desktop, as filtered through the typical issues reported by users.
“I can’t login” or “login is slow”
To access the Citrix/VDI service, a user has to login and failed logins will lead to frustration. Likewise, if login is slow, productive time is lost. These effects can be amplified as user logins may happen multiple times: A user may first login to a Citrix StoreFront server and see a list of available applications. When the user selects a specific application, he/she is then logged into one of the Citrix XenApp servers in the farm and then can access the application. Slow logins to StoreFront or to the XenApp servers negatively affect the user experience. In many domains, users only login a few times in the day. But in some cases, a user may need to login many times throughout the day. For example, a doctor visiting patients at a hospital may login to devices in each room to update information after they have a patient consultation. So for example, when the doctor checks in on 120 patients per day, a 10-second delay per login can result in 20 total minutes spent on logins instead of providing excellent patient care and ensuring satisfaction.
“I can’t get to my virtual desktop” or “It takes a long time to be able to get to my virtual desktop” In the case of virtual desktops, especially when desktops are dynamically provisioned, a desktop may be created and booted up only after a user logs in. But, users expect desktops to be made available instantly so any slowness during booting of these desktops or communication failures between the connection broker and the virtual desktop software (agent) running inside the virtual desktop can present noticeable delays for the user.
“My desktop profile is not available” or “I see my desktop launch but it takes a long time to become accessible” In VDI terms, a user’s desktop and preferences are together referred to as the user’s profile. In a physical desktop, a user’s profile is available locally, but in a Citrix/VDI environment, profiles are stored remotely on profile servers and loaded dynamically when a user logs in. This is required because a user may login to a different server or virtual desktop each time and the profile has to be loaded dynamically to the correct server or desktop each time. The time taken to load a user’s profile also affects the user experience. If a profile is not loaded correctly, the user will not get access to his or her favorites, folders and applications and will not be able to perform the tasks that he or she needs to do.
“The application did not launch” or “the application is slow to launch”
Client applications, such as web browsers, SAP clients, Microsoft Office applications, and EHR/EMR applications, are published through Citrix XenApp or made available from virtual desktops. The time taken to launch an application is another measure of the user experience; for example, if excessive time is required for an application to launch and be available for user inputs (due to various plugins loaded during launch, for example), the user experience degrades. Sometimes, mismatched DLLs can lead to application launch failures. Application launch errors may also occur if the Citrix environment has run out of licenses.
“My access is slow, the screen refreshes very slowly” or “there is a big lag between my keystrokes and their echo on the screen”
Citrix and virtual desktop applications are very interactive. Since no processing or data is done on the user side, all the user interactions have to be communicated from the Citrix/VDI clients to the server farm. If the screen takes some time to repaint or if the lag between a keystroke and its echo on the screen is high, users will perceive slowness and become frustrated. Similarly, for audio/video applications, excessive jitter and patchy display can cause the user experience to degrade.
“My session drops randomly while I am doing work”
A common issue faced in Citrix and virtual desktop infrastructures is session disconnects. When a user is in the middle of their work, a session can get disconnected and it can be very frustrating. This can also lead to productive work being lost, because even if the user connects back to the server farm, he/she may be logged into another server or desktop. Session disconnects can be caused by poor network connectivity between the user and the server farm (e.g., lossy wireless networks) or by glitches in the server farm. Session management and connection handling are closely coupled in Citrix/VDI, and the TCP connection between a client and a server must remain on while the session is in progress. If a network error happens for a short while, it will result in the TCP connection being dropped and the session being disconnected. Users will have to connect back to the Citrix/VDI farm again when this happens. There are techniques like Session Reliability (aka Common Gateway Protocol – see http://blogs.citrix.com/2013/01/23/session-reliability/) that are intended to alleviate this condition, but this feature is not always enabled. Session terminations because of unexpected errors on the Citrix servers/virtual desktops also affect the user experience. Such situations also need to be detected and corrected at the earliest.
“My application crashes randomly” Applications may also crash as a user is performing their work. Repeated crashes of course negatively affect the user experience.
Have we missed any typical Citrix/VDI user issues? Please comment below, or send your suggestions to firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll include them in an addendum.
For our next article in this series, we’ll step through the primary available methods for monitoring the Citrix/VDI user experience, and the advantages/disadvantages of each.
The performance of virtual desktops depend on many factors – the connection broker that manages user sessions, the virtualization platform on which the desktops are hosted, the storage tier supporting the virtual desktops, the provisioning servers that stream the desktop operating system, the enterprise applications being accessed by users, the virtual desktops themselves and the user’s terminals and their connections to the data center where the virtual desktops are hosted. Virtual desktop administrators have complete control over the connection brokers, virtualization platform, provisioning servers, and storage, but they do not often have visibility into or control over the network connectivity from a user’s terminal to the virtual desktop or the applications running inside the virtual desktop.
Virtual Desktop Performance is Not Always Controlled by the VDI Administrator
The below two factors can have a significant impact on user experience and user confidence in the virtual desktop service.
Impact of poor network connectivity on virtual desktop performance: Many virtual desktop deployment scenarios involve users being in remote locations than the virtual desktops they access. For instance, many companies outsource key business processes offshore. In such cases, knowledge workers in countries like India and Philippines connect to virtual desktops over wide area networks. Congested WAN links can result in virtual desktop slowness being perceived by users. Even in flexwork situations, users working from home can be connecting over low bandwidth lines to their virtual desktops. In such situations, virtual desktop administrators cannot be held responsible for poor virtual desktop performance
Impact of virtual desktop applications on the user experience: Applications run by the user on a virtual desktop can also cause slowness. Many a times, the user is not even aware of such a situation. For instance, one of the applications launched on the desktop could have a memory leak, causing the desktop to become slower and slower over time. Another common occurrence is when users access non-corporate web sites from their browser. These web sites can trigger the execution of client-side scripts on the browser, taking up key CPU resources on the desktop.
Unfortunately, irrespective of whether the slowness is caused by the virtual desktop, the network tier, or within the virtual desktop infrastructure, the user complaint is that “the virtual desktop service is slow”. In such situations, administrators end up spending a lot of time and effort troubleshooting performance issues that are not within their control. Long problem diagnosis cycles also result in frustrated users.
eG’s End-User Performance Dashboard: Performance Visibility for End Users
eG Enterprise’s end-user performance dashboard provides end-users with key insights into the performance of their virtual desktops. From the dashboard, users can see the performance of the network connecting their terminal to the virtual desktop. They can also see the resource utilization within the virtual desktop and see what applications executing in the desktop are taking up resources.
The key benefit of the end user dashboard is that it empowers end-users to quickly diagnose if a performance problem is being caused in areas of the infrastructure that are within their control. If a performance problem is in the interconnecting network or in one of the applications the user has launched, the user can initiate corrective action (e.g., kill the offending process, contact the local network team, etc.) to alleviate the issue. This results in fewer complaints and trouble calls to the virtual desktop helpdesk and administrators. As a result, support costs are lower, users less frustrated and they have more confidence in the virtual desktop technology.
Some of the key questions that users can answer with the end-user dashboard and the corresponding actions they can take are indicated in the table below:
Questions a User can Answer with the End-User Virtual Desktop Dashboard
Action the User can Initiate
Is the network connectivity from the user’s terminal to the virtual desktop the cause of virtual desktop slowness?
Raise a complaint with the user’s local network team to resolve the issue. Try connecting from an alternative network if that is possible.
Is any application consuming excessive resources on the desktop (high CPU, high memory, lot of disk I/O) and thereby slowing performance for other applications?
Kill the offending application process or stop the application
Is there a memory/handle leak in one of the applications running in the desktop that could be causing slowness of the desktop?
Kill the offending application process or stop the application
Is there excessive traffic from the desktop – printer, audio, video, USB – that could be causing slowness during remote desktop access?
Stop all bandwidth-intensive operations (eg. Audio/video players) on the desktop.
With eG’s end-user dashboard, users do not have to have login access to the performance management system. Administrators can publish the dashboard for access to virtual desktop users. By entering his/her domain user name, a user can get to see the performance of his / her virtual desktop session. Historical performance can also be observed for all key metrics.
Real-World Experience: User self-service lowers Virtual Desktop Support Costs
Our customers have observed that with basic training, end users are able to learn how to do a first level triage to see if the problem is in their network or in their virtual desktop. They can contact the virtual desktop team only if the problem is neither in their network nor in their virtual desktop. This way, the end user dashboard allows enterprises deploying virtual desktops to:
Reduce the volume of helpdesk calls;
Have their key VDI experts spend time troubleshooting issues that lie in domains that they control;
Resolve virtual desktop performance issues at the earliest (since problems are directed to the right domains);
Build confidence in the user community about the technology.
There is to a growing trend where VDI pilots go well until virtual desktops are being rolled out in production environments with thousands of users, when unexpected performance and cost overrun problems start to occur. Users start to complain about sluggish applications and ask for their laptops back.
Attempts at fixing these performance problems by using traditional virtual desktop planning tools and by throwing more hardware at the problem quickly cause cost overruns, kill ROI and typically don’t resolve the performance issue.
We are proud to announce a new groundbreaking VDI performance assessment service, eG Perform™, to help companies pre-empt and overcome virtual desktop performance issues so they can deliver on the desktop virtualization promise of flexibility, scalability and end-user satisfaction. eG Perform fills a huge gap in the market by identifying VDI bottlenecks and helping companies restore performance and deliver on the promise of desktop virtualization.
In the early stages of VDI deployment, focus was on desktop virtualization viability. Pre-deployment assessments were used to determine the virtualization readiness of physical desktops. As the technology matured, the focus is shifting to performance assurance, right sizing and optimization of large scale deployments. Consequently, performance assessment has had to evolve from just focusing on physical desktops to a complete analysis of the virtual desktop infrastructure.
VDI Performance Assessment Overview
eG’s new VDI performance assessment service leverages eG Innovations’ patented and award-winning cloud-based performance assurance platform that delivers pre-emptive, automated, and integrated performance assurance for dynamic IT environments. eG Perform deploys a unique methodology and patented technology to provide VDI project managers with:
Actionable insight and guidance to quickly diagnose and resolve performance bottlenecks, and deliver on the promise of exceptional performance, user productivity, and ROI;
Complete end-to-end performance visibility and diagnosis across every tier, every layer of the virtual desktop service – Citrix, VMware, Network, Active Directory, Storage, Applications – so you know what’s working and what’s not; and,
Detailed reports and powerful analytics to right-size and optimize the virtual desktop infrastructure and increase ROI, complete with actionable insight into hardware bottlenecks, top users, top apps, critical dependencies, etc.
Integrated with eG’s on-demand cloud-based performance assurance platform eG-on-Tap, the eG Perform assessment service allows enterprises to baseline their current VDI performance, understand critical bottlenecks, and identify how they can optimize their virtual desktop infrastructure for peak performance and cost efficiency.
Free Assessment Offer
Enterprises interested in trying out the service risk-free can get a complete eG Perform analysis for up to five servers free of charge for a three-week period. The service will deliver a comprehensive report documenting the current performance of the virtual desktop infrastructure complete with identified performance bottlenecks and areas for optimization.
Desktop transformation promises to reduce cost, improve reliability, and provide better user productivity. Especially in complex hybrid desktop environments, many organizations are looking to accelerate deployments and improve the desktop experience to deliver business value and accommodate user requirements for personalization, application performance and security.