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Microsoft Co-Venture Uses Server Solution to Eliminate Latency for Field Force
For Avanade, the Accenture/Microsoft joint venture that provides business technology solutions and managed services, it is not enough to use the latest Microsoft technologies to run its business. It also has to demonstrate compelling expertise in those technologies to win new business. The company saw the chance to do both with the release of Windows Server 2012, Microsoft System Center 2012, and Windows 8. Avanade created an innovative way to deploy Windows 8 worldwide, using Windows Azure, and then used the new software to give remote workers faster, easier, and more secure corporate access. Additionally, the company’s mission-critical Dynamic Computing Services—which runs a private cloud environment for development and testing solutions for internal and external customers—uses the technologies to gain the cost-effective scalability necessary to support a large and growing business.
"We can run our DCS environment with a lean staff because Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 give us consistent management tools that automate most processes and vastly simplify the rest."
Microsoft customers are not the only ones who use the company’s products. Microsoft runs its own business on that same software, which means it has two sets of customers—internal and external—to satisfy with its solutions.
That also holds true for Avanade, the joint venture of Accenture and Microsoft that delivers business technology solutions and managed services. Avanade promotes its core competency and expertise in Microsoft technologies to customers, and it demonstrates that expertise with the way that it uses Microsoft technologies to manage its own global operations, including 16,000 professionals located across 20 countries.
Many of those professionals see the inside of an Avanade office infrequently. Consider Avanade consultants, who spend about 80 percent of their time outside their offices. They may not enter an Avanade office for weeks at a time, but they need always-on connectivity to Avanade whether they are making presentations to prospective customers, reviewing project status with current customers, or working on their own—or in virtual collaboration with colleagues—to deliver solutions for their customers.
The traditional solution for that need has been the use of virtual private networks (VPNs). It provides security—a must for the exchange of customer-specific and other sensitive data—but it is also clumsy and time-consuming for business people to set up, requiring user names, passwords, and configuration choices. And anything that presents a difficulty for business users eventually poses a challenge to the IT department’s help desk, too.
Avanade addressed these limitations when it adopted Windows Server 2008 R2—the second release of the Windows Server 2008 operating system—with Service Pack 1 (SP1). The DirectAccess technology in Windows Server provides a connectivity option that is easier for Avanade consultants to use and the IT staff to manage. The technology’s “always-on” capability means that consultants have their connections to the company whenever they turn on their laptops, without going through a manual access process. It makes accessing intranet resources much like it is for users working within the company’s offices.
But at least one key difference remained: Because the technology was limited to a single point of access—which Avanade put in its Seattle, Washington, data center—latency was high, especially for consultants accessing the network from one or more continents away. This limitation resulted in a hybrid model, with VPNs continuing to be used to access particularly interactive resources, such as data connections and intranet sites.
Avanade also adopted Windows Server 2008 R2 SP1 for the company’s mission-critical Dynamic Computing Services (DCS). The DCS division provides an in-house, private-cloud development and test environment for Avanade developers working on projects for both the company and its customers, and has supported thousands of projects over its decade-long existence. It manages about 400 projects at any one time, using an environment of about 1,500 virtual machines running on the Hyper-V virtualization technology in Windows Server.
For DCS, the challenge is to continue to scale to support more customers—internal and external—without a parallel increase in costs. The last time DCS acquired an additional storage array, the purchase price was US$1 million, and “migrating data from the older equipment and moving it to the new system was a major event, was very expensive, and called for our users to accept significant downtime,” says Patrick Cimprich, Vice President and Global Chief Architect of the Technology Infrastructure Service Line at Avanade.
The company addressed these challenges—including high-latency for remote workers and the need for cost-effective scalability—by adopting a trio of Microsoft products: the Windows Server 2012 operating system, Microsoft System Center 2012 for data center management, and the Windows 8 operating system.
Avanade upgraded to these latest Microsoft technologies for many reasons, but one was to eliminate the latency that international consultants experienced when they used DirectAccess. The result is that Avanade can expose more of its interactive resources through DirectAccess, which reduces the company’s reliance on VPNs while maintaining security.
The DirectAccess technology in Windows Server 2012, together with Windows 8, creates a multisite solution that replaces the single point of access of the previous-generation technology. Using the newer technology, Avanade established a DirectAccess server in both North America and Europe. Now, when a consultant turns on his or her Windows 8 laptop, the software automatically seeks the nearest DirectAccess entry point and establishes a connection through it, rather than exclusively through the Seattle-based server.
Of course, this solution calls for the company’s consultants to run Windows 8 on their mobile devices. Avanade created a quick, cost-effective global deployment process for Windows 8, which it expects will also appeal to external customers planning their own deployments. That process is based on a hybrid on-premises/cloud solution using Avanade’s network of localized Windows file services for office workers and Windows Azure for the vast remote workforce.
The consultants and others receive email messages with a link to a cloud-based click-once application hosted on Windows Azure. The employees type their network credentials, and the application determines which download location is nearest to them. The download begins and employees are using the new operating system software in about 45 minutes.
Avanade is also deploying Windows Server 2012 to the approximately 100 physical servers, plus the virtual machines, that support Dynamic Computing Services. Its motivation is to exploit a range of new and enhanced technologies that will help DCS continue to scale its services and capabilities in a highly cost-effective way. Those technologies include the following:
- Hyper-V Replica. One of the new features that Avanade adopted “immediately,” according to Weston Fraser, DCS Manager at Avanade, is Hyper-V Replica, which provides asynchronous replication of virtual machines between storage systems, clusters, and data centers. “We’re opening a new data center in London and will use Hyper-V Replica for comprehensive disaster recovery between it and our Seattle data center,” says Fraser. “Previously, disaster recovery, an expensive capability, was on a selective or nonexistent basis.”
- “Shared nothing” live migration. Avanade uses the enhanced live migration capability to migrate virtual machines among servers within their data centers, reducing the impact to end users when changes to the underlying infrastructure are required.
- Hyper-V storage migration. Avanade takes advantage of Hyper-V storage migration to transfer virtual hard disks, without downtime, to new locations for upgrading or migrating storage, performing storage maintenance, or redistributing the storage load. The technology supports the Server Message Block 3 (SMB3) protocol, which Avanade is adopting enterprisewide, and particularly in its London data center to host storage on standard, low-cost hardware, helping contain the company’s capital investment there.
- Remote Desktop Services. DCS already uses Remote Desktop Services to give developers, consultants, and others access to their projects and other resources. In adopting the enhanced version in Windows Server 2012, the organization can provide a consistently rich experience on various devices and under a broader range of network conditions, and support the new multitouch and gesture-enabled Windows 8 devices being adopted by Avanade consultants and developers.
Avanade has also adopted Microsoft System Center 2012 and is using it to manage infrastructure in DCS and elsewhere. For example, it uses System Center 2012 to monitor and manage the physical and virtual infrastructure of DCS, the Windows 8 devices, and even Windows Phone 8 phones. Avanade also uses System Center to implement virtual machine and other virtualization migrations, automate standardized processes, and serve as the foundation for custom management solutions, such as the company’s Cloud Services Manager.
Avanade is using the latest generation of Microsoft products to make both its consultants and the IT staff that supports them more productive and cost-effective.
Creates More Secure Remote Access with Lower Latency
Avanade has improved remote access with its adoption of Windows 8 and the DirectAccess feature in Windows Server 2012, according to Simon Windell, Workstation Service Owner at Avanade.
“We used Windows 8 and Windows Server 2012 to solve the latency problem for our global network of consultants who have to connect with corporate resources from just about anywhere,” he says. “Remote consultants now have access that’s very similar to the access of Avanade employees working within our offices. That’s a morale boost for the consultants, and it has practical implications, too. Now they can use their remote access productively to do more than check email. They can directly consume network resources, line-of-business applications, and databases. Because DirectAccess gives us high security without degrading the user experience, we can give remote consultants access to sensitive information—such as human resources data—that we didn’t allow over remote access before.”
Reduces Time to Deploy Windows 8 by 50 Percent
The hybrid deployment process for Windows 8 boosts the productivity of Avanade users. For example, remote users used to bring their computers to an Avanade office to upgrade their operating system software, or they received and deployed the upgrade from DVDs. The hybrid process eliminates those time-consuming, complex processes, shaving up to 50 percent off the time needed to deploy the software. That’s contributed to Avanade’s decision to roll out Windows 8 to all employees, according to Windell.
“Faster, easier deployment gets people using Windows 8 sooner,” says Windell. “And virtually everyone who uses this technology finds they can do what they do better.”
Improves Management Processes, Reduces Deployment Cost by 67 Percent
Avanade IT professionals benefit from the faster, more streamlined management processes that they gain with Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012. That is particularly important given the lean nature of the company’s IT staff.
“We can run our DCS environment with a lean staff because Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012 give us consistent management tools that automate most processes and vastly simplify the rest. The tool set provides a single window into the environment that we use to maintain a highly managed system,” says Fraser.
For example, the same hybrid deployment process that saves time for remote users also saves time and money for IT. The company no longer has to dedicate as much time to assisting remote users during their upgrades, and the process is up to 67 percent less expensive than it was before, according to Windell.
Avanade also can use the faster, less expensive management processes to improve service-level agreements and reduce prices for internal and external customers. “We gain tremendous flexibility and agility by using Windows Server 2012 and System Center 2012,” says Cimprich.
Another big savings comes from Avanade’s use of SMB3 storage, replacing the need for $1 million storage arrays with a low-cost hardware option.