Navy steams ahead with virtual desktop technology

By upgrading the computers and software in its classrooms and training centers the U.S. Navy is modernizing how it trains its personnel.

By upgrading the computers and software in its classrooms and training centers the U.S. Navy is modernizing how it trains its personnel. At the heart of the program, is virtualization technology that is replacing desktop computers with a centralized system, with training material residing on servers and accessed through dedicated terminals. When it is fully deployed, Navy officials hope it will save money through reduced maintenance and support needs while improving security by replacing vulnerable desktop machines.

When the training transition is complete, the program will replace 23,000 desktops in 2, 500 classrooms globally, said CDR Sean O’Brien, CIO of the Naval Education and Training Command (NETC) in Pensacola, Fla. He noted that NETC is one of the Defense Department’s largest training and education providers, serving more than 36,000 students and instructors on any given day and up to 100,000 personnel annually. NETC supports all of the Navy’s training, from boot camp through advanced technical schools.

Two years into a five-year plan, the program aims to replace at least 80 percent of the NETC’s desktops with virtual desktops. The command is installing the new virtualized systems in its facilities during their regular technology-refresh cycles, which enables Naval personnel to continue receiving training and education without any breaks in service, O’Brien noted. The software running NETC’s virtualization was developed by VMware.

NETC has finished converting one training facility at Gulfport, Miss., to the new virtualized system, O’Brien said. But the largest and most time-consuming challenge faced by NETC during the process has been cataloging and creating an accurate inventory of all the equipment, training material and applications at each Navy training facility. This material is neither searchable nor indexed, he explained.

Virtualization Enhances Security

A big advantage of virtualization is that it reduces NETC’s security risks, O’Brien said. This is because data never leaves the server supporting the virtual desktops. Scans with security software found a 75-percent decrease in vulnerabilities because centralizing the servers eliminates the need for desktop computers.

A key part of the virtualization project and one that enhances the security of NETC’s IT enterprise is the use of zero-client terminals to replace existing desktop devices. Unlike thin-client devices, zero-client terminals have no resident data on them. They also save the Navy money otherwise spent on multiple software licenses because only a single copy residing on the host server is necessary, O’Brien said. Additionally, zero-client terminals can be plugged in and set up by personnel with no specialized skills. “I’ve gone from having techs in every classroom, to having the instructor or the janitor fixing things,” he said.

NETC’s virtualized terminals are arranged in a pool of desktops in each facility. They are supported by a single resident server located in an IT cabinet, rather than a data center. Each server supports and replaces up to 300 individual desktop computers, O’Brien said. Besides saving space, the new servers and terminals also reduce the Navy’s power and cooling needs. Each new zero-client desktop at NETC can support multiple screens of training data and is accessed by the user’s common access card.

Once the system is fully in place sometime in 2015, it will have a variety of capabilities, including mobility. O’Brien cautions that the Navy is still working out the details for running mobile devices, but he notes that the virtual desktop data can be easily presented on handheld devices. “It’s really NETC’s first step to creating a private cloud,” he said.

Naval Education and Training Command