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Aircraft manufacturer Airbus is deploying desktop virtualisation to thousands of its employees in order to provide greater flexibility as it undergoes a major restructuring of its operations.

Formerly EADS, Airbus is in the midst of multi-year business transformation programme, streamlining parts of its business as it seeks to increase profitability.

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is helping to support the reorganisation of its workforce – with more than 130,000 employees spanning several countries such as France, Germany and the UK. And it is the flexibility of the tool rather than the cost savings which have made it appealing.

“The benefit [of VDI] is not coming from IT, it is coming from the business," Arnaud Albinet, ‎Airbus' ICT merger, acquisition and extended enterprise project manager, told ComputerworldUK, adding that its VMware Horizon View is an “IT enabler” for the transformation of Airbus. “Because we are solving a business issue, we are integrating the savings and cost avoidance [on] a global business case, so the ROI is…very positive.”

VDI is sometimes seen as a method to reduce costs – enabling organisations to roll out cheaper thin client devices, for example. However, Albinet does not believe that desktop virtualisation is beneficial in terms of direct cost savings.

“I would say there are no cost savings [relating to the VDI deployment] which are clear currently if we take everything into account: the new service to set up, people to train, new infrastructure to order, and also managing a new licence model which is used within the virtual infrastructure,” he said.

“We are allowing our business to perform as they want to perform, and previously without this technology they were not capable to do this.

“So the savings are not on the infrastructure part, but on the business we are enabling.”

VDI: Flexibilty benefits

Airbus has plans in place to roll virtual desktops out to at least five thousand staff in the next two to three years. The initial deployment, of 2,000 virtual desktops, has been targeted at providing remote access for IT users, such as app developer and testing teams.

The VDI solution allows IT staff to solve issues on PCs and laptops which are often running large, data-intensive applications, by replicating desktop environments which are mainly running Windows 7. (See also: Airbus boosts aeroplane design with HPC)

In some cases IT staff may be in different offices, or even different countries, says Albinet.

“So in order to allow them to do it from where they are - and not all the time close to the data and the data centre - we were obliged to have a remote access solution. The previous [remote access system] was not worthwhile in terms of the support of the latency and support of the bandwidth constraints.”

One area this has benefitted Airbus is with significant time savings when replicating environments.

“The most famous example is that when you want to work on an environment which requires a lot data for being representative of the user, you need to be close to the data. If you are not close to the data, it will take sometimes 24 hours in order for you to upload the model and all the data which is necessary. Thanks to VDI we are very close to the data, and we move from 24 hours to 30 minutes.”

Previously, staff were generally required to be in the same vicinity. Albinet said: “It was necessary for them to move from where they were to the end user office to see what is happening, and to try to replicate it. It was very complex and costly, and now they don’t have this problem anymore.”

Streamlining process with VDI

Another benefit is the ability to increase the number of virtual desktops quickly. This is important for Airbus as it restructures its business.

“We have an SLA for two hours for such an update,” Albinet said. “Sometimes it takes thirty minutes and the virtual desktop is created and people are able to work, then three weeks later when the workload is reducing they are able to readapt. That is one of the big benefits, adapting rapidly and being flexible [to meet] the business expectation.”

But while the ability to support a “lean organisation” is the main driver for the VDI project, there have been advantages in terms of streamlining IT processes, such as performing updates.

“For example all the security patching is transparent for the end user. When they log off the patch is performed automatically and when they log on it has already been done," he said.

“The desktop is just a clone of the master desktop which is constantly updated. When you want to deploy an application, you don’t need to deploy it on each desktop, you deploy it on the master desktop and then you replicate.”

Next steps: Mobile devices for engineers

Going forward, Airbus plans to continue to extend the use of VDI. The next stage will be to provide the service to its engineers, allowing them to access design data while on the move by streaming apps to mobile devices.

“In future the engineers could have their own device, they could have a laptop. We did a test rendering the aircraft in 3D on a tablet or mobile device. It was quite nice because you can move the pieces of the aircraft on a tablet,” said Albinet.

“On a tablet there is no powerful graphics card, so normally it is not possible. With VDI technology, all the models are in the data centre and the display is on the tablet. It is very useful for the end user.”

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