A little over a year after Tully Rinckey PLLC opened a second office in Washington, D.C., in 2008, the fast-growing Albany, N.Y.-based law firm confronted some basic challenges with overloaded servers and network links.
That got the firm’s leadership thinking about the need for a long-term technology plan, says Chief Information Officer Bob Dunton. “We started thinking, if we’re running into these issues now, what if we had an office in London or Prague?” International expansion is a ways off, but Dunton says it probably won’t be long before the firm opens more offices in New York and the D.C. area.
One approach would have been to go to a more distributed strategy, so each office would get its own server, making it less dependent on connectivity to headquarters. This story is about why Dunton instead decided to stay centralized, but use virtualization and upgraded bandwidth to improve the quality and reliability of computing services delivered long distance. In the long term this strategy promises simplification and a template for expansion. “This is the model we’re going to apply to all our new offices,” Dunton says. “If we have five sites all on this model, it scales a lot better.”
Founded in 2003, Tully Rinckey is up to 75 employees and likely to double in size over the next 12 to 18 months. The D.C. office exists partly because founders Mathew Tully and Greg Rinckey both had military backgrounds and experience with federal employment law. But the organization is also just plain ambitious, with aggressive Web marketing plans and a fully staffed call center for client intake.
Dunton was initially hired in June 2009 to work on the firm’s website and other marketing needs. But because of his background in engineering and computer science, he got pulled into the planning for an overhaul of the firm’s technology. He got the CIO title just a few weeks ago, after hiring a full-time webmaster and a help desk worker.
When Dunton joined, the firm was running all its business computing off of two servers. One was for file storage, print queues and general network services, plus applications such as the Time Matters practice management software from LexisNexis. The second ran Windows Terminal Services, the Microsoft thin client technology, giving staff in the D.C. office remote access to desktop software hosted on servers in Albany.
For that kind of remote access to work smoothly, every computer keystroke and mouse movement must be transmitted over the network, as must all the video to be displayed on the user’s computer screen. As the D.C. office grew, the 1.5 megabits per second dedicated connection to Albany started to get overloaded. “We could see that it would hit 100% capacity at about 10 a.m. and stay there for the rest of the day,” Dunton says.
The result: Failing applications and dropped Voice-over-Internet-Protocol phone calls. The single Windows server for all those remote desktops was proving inadequate in other ways, as applications competed for resources and tripped over each other. A software update for one user could result in the server rebooting and knocking all remote users offline.
These are the sorts of problems virtualization solves–compartmentalizing applications so they do not interfere with each other. In corporate data centers, virtualization allows many server-based applications to coexist on a single piece of server hardware. The same approach can be applied to giving users virtual desktops that are logically isolated.
Tully Rinckey now runs VMware’s vSphere virtualization technology on a cluster of three souped up servers, each with eight processor cores and 64 gigabytes of memory. Together, they support a pool of virtual machines–both virtual desktops for the D.C. office and virtual servers for applications like Time Matters. VMware View now provides the remote desktop access. Dunton says he investigated an upgrade that would have kept the solution in the Windows family, using Microsoft’s virtualization technology, but concluded VMware “had a two- or three-year lead in virtualization.” He also considered solutions from Citrix Systems.
To boost bandwidth and help with other traffic such as VoIP phone calls, Dunton purchased a fiber optic Internet link rated at 100 megabits per second. Even though the effective bandwidth is less, given that it’s a public network connection, it’s plenty for now, he says. Virtual private network technology secures data transmissions in the absence of a dedicated connection. Now the D.C. office, which started with just a handful of people, is up to 15 now and preparing to take over another floor in its K Street office building. “I think we’ll be at 30 there before long,” Dunton says. As part of that expansion, he is starting to employ thin client computers from Wyse Technology that consist of just a monitor, a keyboard, and enough computer power to run VMware’s remote access protocol.
Meanwhile, staff members in Albany have held onto their conventional PCs so far. However, Dunton is looking to put desktop virtualization on the attorney’s laptops for access from home or on the road. He also plans to try it out in the law firm’s call center, where users could download a customized desktop when they log in for their shift but have the computer reset to a standardized “gold image” when they log out. Since a lot of support calls are based on a user’s individual configuration of a computer, “that can all be wiped out if we can easily reset to the original factory setup,” he says.