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VDI – A Vulnerably Dangerous Investment or A Virtual Dream Inclusion?

VMView, XenDeskTop, MS RDS – either way is it time your desktop was virtual?

PCs are part of everyday life in just about every organization. First there's the purchase of the hardware and the necessary software followed by an inventory recorded and maintained by the IT department. Then normal procedure would dictate that the same IT department would then install all required applications before delivering them physically to the end user.  Then over a period of time the laptop/PC would be maintained by the IT department with software updates, patches, troubleshooting etc. to ensure full utilization of employees. Once the PC/laptop becomes outdated, the IT department is then tasked with the monotonous task of removing the hardware, deleting sensitive data and removing any installed applications to free up licenses. All of this is done to enable the whole cycle to be repeated all over again. So in this vicious circle, there are obvious opportunities to better manage resources and save unnecessary OPEX & CAPEX costs, one such solution being virtual desktops.

Having witnessed the financial rewards of server virtualization, enterprises are now taking note of the benefits and usage of virtualization to support their desktop workloads. Consolidation, centralization are now no longer buzz words which were once used for marketing spin but are instead tangible realities for IT managers who initially took that unknown plunge into what was then the deep mystical waters of virtualization.  Now they're also realizing that by enabling thin clients the cost of their endpoint hardware is also significantly driven down by the consequent lifespan extension of existing PCs. Indeed the future of endpoint devices is one that could revolutionize their existent IT offices - a future of PC/laptop-less office desks replaced by thin client compatible portable iPads?  Anything is now possible.

There's also no doubting that VDI brings with it even further advantages one being improved security. With data always being administered via the datacenter rather than from the vulnerability of an end user's desktop, risks of data loss or theft are instantly mitigated. No longer can sensitive data potentially walk out of the company's front doors. Also with centralized administration, data can instantly be protected from scenarios where access needs to be limited or copying needs protection. For example a company that has numerous outsourcers / contractors on site can quickly set their data and application access to be specified or even turned off. Indeed there is nothing stopping an organization in setting up ‘a contractor' desktop template which can be provisioned instantly and then decommissioned the moment the outsourced party's contract expires.

By centralizing the infrastructure, fully compliant backup policies can also become significantly easier. With PCs and hard drives constantly crashing leading to potential data loss, the centralized virtual desktop has an underlying infrastructure which is continuously backed up. Additionally with the desktop instance not being bound to the PC's local storage but instead stored in the server, recovery from potential outages are significantly quicker with even the option of reverting the virtual desktops back to their last known good states. Imagine the amount of work the customary employees that constantly bombard the IT helpdesk with countless "help I've accidentally deleted my hard drive" phone calls could actually get done now, not to mention the amount of time it will free up for your IT helpdesk team. In fact you might even end up with an IT helpdesk that gets to answer the phone instead of taking you straight to voicemail.

Additionally an IT helpdesk team would also be better utilized with the centralized, server-based approach allowing for both the maintenance of desktop images and specific user data all without having to visit the end user's office. Hence with nothing needing to be installed on the endpoint, deployment becomes incredibly faster and easier with VDI than the traditional PC desktop deployment. This can also be extended to the laborious practice of having to individually visit each desktop to patch applications, provision and decommission users, as well as upgrade to newer operating systems. By removing such activities, the OPEX savings are more than substantial.

OPEX savings can also be seen with the added benefit of optimizing the productivity of highly paid non-technical end users by avoiding them having to needlessly maintain their desktop applications and data. Furthermore the productivity of employees can also be improved significantly by a centralized control of which applications are used by end users and a full monitoring of their usage, so long gone should be the days of employees downloading torrents or mindlessly chatting away on social networks during working hours. Even the infamously slow start up time of Windows which has consequently brought with it the traditional yet unofficial morning coffee/cigarette break can be eradicated with the faster Windows boot up times found with VDI. Even lack of access to an employee's corporate PC can no longer be used as an excuse to not log in from home or elsewhere remotely when required - a manager's dream and a slacker's nightmare.

So with all these benefits, where lies the risk or obstacle to adopting a VDI infrastructure for your company? Well as with most technology there rarely exists a one solution fits all scenario and VDI is no different. Prior to any consideration for VDI, a company must first assess their infrastructure and whether VDI could indeed reap these benefits or alternatively possibly cause it more problems.

One of the first issues to look for is whether the organization has a high percentage of end users which manipulate complex or very large files. In other words if a high proportion of end users are constantly in need of using multimedia, 2D or 3D modeling applications, or VOIP, than VDI should possibly be reconsidered for a better managed desktop environment. The performance limitations that came about with server-based computing platforms such as Microsoft's Terminal Services with regards to bandwidth, latency and graphics capabilities are still fresh in the mind of many old school IT end users and without the correct pre-assessment those old monsters could rear their ugly head. For example an infrastructure that has many end users using high performance / real time applications should think carefully before going down the VDI route regardless of what the sales guys claim.

Despite this though if having taken all this into consideration and realizing your environment is suited to a VDI deployment the benefits and consequent savings are extensive despite the initial expenditure. As for which solution to take this leads to another careful consideration and one that needs to be investigated beyond the usual vendor marketing hype.

Firstly when it comes to server virtualization, there currently is no threatening competition (certainly not in the Enterprise infrastructure) to VMware's VSphere 4. In the context of desktop virtualization though, the story has been somewhat different. Citrix's XenDeskTop for those who've deployed it certainly know that it has better application compatibility than VMview 3. Add to the problems of multimedia freeze framing that would often occur with the VMview 3 solution and Citrix looked to have cornered a market in the virtual sphere which initially seemed destined to be monopolized by VMware. Since then VMware have hit back with VMview 4 which brought in the vastly improved PCOIP display protocol which dwarfs their original RDS protocol and simplified their integration with Active Directory and overall installation of the product, but in performance terms XenDeskTop still has an edge. So it comes as no surprise that rumours are rife that VMWorld 2010 which is soon to take place in a couple of weeks will be the launching pad for VMview 4.5 and a consequent onslaught on the Citrix VDI model. Subsequent retaliation is bound to follow from Citrix who seemed to have moved their focus away from the server virtualization realm in favour of the VDI milieu which can only be better for the clients that they are aiming for. Already features such as Offline Desktop, which allow end users to download and run their virtual desktops offline and then later resynchronize with the data center are being developed beyond the beta stage.

So the fact remains that quickly provisioning desktops from a master image and instantly administering policies, patches and updates without affecting user settings, data or preferences is an advantage many will find hard to ignore. So while VDI has still many areas for improvement, depending on your infrastructure it may already be an appropriate time to reap the rewards of its numerous benefits.

More Stories By Archie Hendryx

SAN, NAS, Back Up / Recovery & Virtualisation Specialist.

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