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Centralis helps Groupama drive efficiency across its UK operations with Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)

Replaces traditional desktop PCs with VDI to lower TCO and environmental impact while increasing performance and flexibility.


Date: 9 Jul 2012

Company overview
Groupama Insurances is a highly respected motor and home insurer that also offers an innovative range of commercial products for small to medium sized businesses. The company operates exclusively through brokers from six UK locations with 700 employees. It generates revenues of £470million.

It is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Groupama Group, a European insurance and banking operation with revenues exceeding €17 billion.

Groupama Insurances had an aging desktop environment and was initially looking to conduct a technology refresh for task-based workers at its offices in Manchester (Underwriting & Credit Premium Unit) and Portsmouth (Claims/Finance). This would then be followed by a wider rollout that would eventually take in more than 700 staff at its other main locations in the UK – Borehamwood (Commercial Claims); Croydon (IT & data centre); and London (Head Office & Finance).

Although a traditional desktop refresh was considered, the company had previously achieved a good ratio of server consolidation using VMware and was closely following advances in other virtualisation technologies. Due to the redeployment of staff internally and organic growth at its Portsmouth office, a virtual solution was recognised as being the most flexible and future-proof option, despite the fact the initial investment would be higher.
Led by Paul Marshman and Donald Debono, Groupama’s IT team identified five key areas in which significant business benefit could be realised: decreased total cost of ownership (TCO), increased service availability, quicker and more efficient application deployment, enhanced user experience, increased security and sizable savings in power usage through the replacement of inefficient, power-hungry PCs with small-footprint thin terminals.
For the IT team, virtualisation of the desktop also offered a more manageable and secure option, because it would significantly reduce the time spent patching systems and eliminate the need for third-party software to prevent users from taking data out of the company (e.g. by blocking access to USB keys and other removable media). The latter is essential for regulatory compliance.

Groupama’s Executive granted budget approval in September 2009 for deployment of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to its call centres in Portsmouth and Manchester.

“These sites provided a logical first step because the majority of users had similar, non-complex application requirements and wanted reliability without disruption,” says Paul Marshman, Customer Support Manager for IT Production Services at Groupama Insurances. “We would then be able to move to a second phase with a focus on users with high processing or specialist application requirements – such as HR, marketing and those with flexible working needs.”

Since a key requirement was to avoid deploying local servers or increasing the firm’s wide area network capacity and costs, it was soon discovered that the case for a centralised terminal services model wasn’t as clear-cut as first envisaged. “A first proof of concept (PoC) was abandoned as the solution did not fit our design aim for a centralised solution,” states Donald Debono, Technical Support Manager at Groupama Insurances.
There was also uncertainty in how to approach tendering for a solution. “VDI meant investing in a different way,” adds Paul. “We knew our aims, office locations and technical requirements, so it was argued we should tender for a complete solution. However, breaking the solution down into the necessary components would maximise on budget.”

With uncertainty surrounding the initial PoC, Paul and Donald looked at an alternative VDI approach based on Citrix and, having investigated the market for a suitable partner, selected independent application and desktop delivery specialist Centralis. “Centralis had extensive experience in VDI, a track record of successful delivery and the team was very enthusiastic and precise about how you could go about it,” says Paul.

Working closely with Centralis, the team settled on a solution design that would allow Groupama to make an initial investment in a pre-production pilot with further investment deferred until the system had been proved. “Centralis understood our concerns and put together a plan that enabled us to build confidence in the technology before we committed the bulk of the budget.”

The main components of the VDI solution comprised VMware hypervisors, Citrix’s XenApp application management system for delivering virtual applications and AppSense’s user virtualisation platform. The latter enables desktop personalisation and monitors and controls licensing usage. To address concerns around additional wide-area network capacity and costs, Centralis recommended that a Citrix Branch Repeater implementation be included as part of the pre-production pilot for the acceleration of Citrix traffic between the three key locations. Groupama also specified additional SAN storage as a support strategy and Wyse thin clients, which are compact and energy efficient desktop terminals designed to provide the dynamic user-experience of a PC without the day-to-day complexities.

“Wyse terminals were the final part of the puzzle,” says Donald. “We didn’t want to install a connector tool since you end up with a flavour of Windows that still needs to be managed and patched and our main objective was to remove that overhead. Although this meant we encountered a number of challenges, the Centralis team committed themselves wholeheartedly, delivering more days than originally envisaged, sharing the risk and following the project through until it was a success.”

Groupama’s centralised server infrastructure in Croydon now supports desktop presentation services for 350 users and is expected to deliver significant savings over the long term in a number of areas:
· Centralised desktop management and support with hot-desking and secure flexible working
· Reduction in desktop power and cooling equating to about 140,000 kWh or 85 metric tons of carbon emissions per year
· Longer operational life expectancy of thin terminals against full desktop replacement

Service availability has been increased due to the fact thin client terminals have no moving parts, while the resilient server back-end ensures faults are less frequent. Development, testing and deployment times have also been improved, with each application installed once on the central virtual servers and pushed to the terminals on demand.

“Once you’ve got started, the actual deployment of additional users is very quick,” confirms Donald. “With VDI, it takes literally a few clicks of the mouse provided they can be accommodated within your existing base image. It’s also more flexible in terms of being able to move users around for example for hot desking.”

Moreover, the reduction in power and cooling is integral to Groupama’s objective of good corporate citizenship, while VDI has delivered a much better end-user experience, in turn meeting the Group’s objectives of quality service, formal service standards and highly-efficient business systems.
“Business benefits are not necessarily user benefits,” continues Paul. “But at the same time, we’ve delivered a ‘tidier desktop’ whereby the footprint of the terminal is less, the speed of getting started in the morning is much faster and the user interface is much simpler.”

Crucially, VDI has allowed Groupama to reign in the perimeter of its network, to the extent that all corporate data and applications are stored in the data centre and the only data that leaves the core network is a ‘view’ of it rather than the data itself. “We also think we can reduce the amount of data over our network because users are able to work on data sets from a central source rather than copying them to a local server,” he continues.

Groupama has since procured a further PoC with Centralis to finalise the design of a VDI for non-standard users. This will reduce the number of laptops being used by flexible workers and road warriors and therefore reduce the associated risk.

“The ultimate success of this project was due to close collaboration between the two teams,” commented James Bunce, who leads the Centralis growth strategy for the banking, finance and insurance markets. “Paul and Don understood the Centralis value proposition and approach from the outset, which allowed us to collectively manage executive expectations and the business user experience closely throughout the pre-production pilot. This joint approach to managing project risk and outcome enabled a very smooth transition to production and Centralis is delighted to have been retained to assist in further developing the solution for the remainder of the Groupama business in the UK.”

According to Groupama’s Paul Marshman, one of the major benefits of working with Centralis was being able to use the team’s knowledge and relationships with AppSense and Citrix. “Centralis was able to untangle the complexity of the solution and the agreements that you need to have in place, shared the risk and, once VDI was successfully delivered, ensured a seamless handover of documentation and knowledge. And credit to the team at Centralis for their willingness to work with our own solutions and ensure we successfully delivered a solution within budget.”


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