In any multi-unit environment, it is a challenge to effectively and reliably maintain distributed applications, user files and operating systems. Be it system or application patches and updates, dependable backups or access control; keeping machines in remote places running correctly has always been a challenge. The advent of reliable TCP/IP connectivity and remote management tools has facilitated the process; however it continues to be less than perfect.
Ask any multi-unit restaurant or hotel technology department how they install a service pack for the operating system or ensure that critical worksheets and documents are reliably backed up. You will hear stories about scripts and batch jobs, distributed documentation and CDs or centralized software behemoths that "manage" the process. Not many would say it is 100% reliable and when there are problems, the operation suffers. Improperly applied patches and updates can render the remote system useless and can require an expensive emergency visit.
At Unidine Corporation, a contract food and dining service provider, the answer to this dilemma is a virtual desktop infrastructure, such as Citrix's XenApp Presentation Server, that consists of multiple servers which provide user access and application delivery to nearly 400 remote users at senior service facilities, hospitals, business dining locations and colleges in fifteen states. Unidine leverages Citrix to centralize the office suite, menu and recipe software and all user files as well as centrally manage web links. All of this is then tightly integrated with Windows Active Directory to simplify user management and enable tight security.
Easy remote desktop management
Managing remote desktops can be very simple. If a unit PC is fully locked-down and local users can't access the hard disk or USB ports, there is nothing to maintain. For example, when Windows updates are scheduled and antivirus software is installed on a remote computer, server clients can keep the virtual environment isolated from the local operating system. This makes it impossible for the local user to copy files, or viruses to the virtual desktop and critical company information cannot be transferred to USB memory sticks or disks.
When an application or other update is required, servers can be taken offline and updated one at a time. A solution that features internal load-balancing can distribute the workload between the active servers automatically, eliminating downtime. This dramatically simplifies desktop management as updates only need to be applied to the servers. An application patch can be applied in as little as an hour as opposed to maintaining desktops at individual locations.
Document access anytime, anywhere
Each time Unidine opens up a new piece of business, they install their locked-down computers with no software installed and only one icon on the desktop. That icon launches Internet Explorer and connects to the company portal over a broadband Internet connection. When the unit manager logs into the company portal, they are presented with a standardize desktop that allows easy navigation to shared documents such as company policies and procedures, links to all the company's online suppliers as well as the launch area for 32-bit applications like Microsoft Word and Excel.
Utilizing a centralized portal is also easier for the unit manager and other field operators. Since the desktop is maintained on the server, managers can log on to any computer and their desktop will be the same. Additionally, all user files can be stored on a company server. Sharing Excel, Word or other files among locations or with corporate is as easy as putting it on the "shared drive." This eliminates the need to email file attachments. Managers can also rest assured that their important files are safe and secure in the data center.
James D. Lux serves as the vice president of information technology at Unidine Corporation and teaches part-time at Northeastern University's School of Professional and Continuing Studies. His educational background includes a BS in Business and an MBA from the State University of New York at Buffalo as well as an MS from Northeastern University in addition to European studies at the Advanced School of Commerce in Tours, France.