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Virtualization of the Desktop and Virtualization at the Desktop

Tactical versus strategic approaches to solving desktop business challenges

Desktop virtualization has become a very popular solution today and the virtualization ecosystem vendor community has responded with a wealth of products and solutions targeted at this market. Customers are generally overwhelmed and not well served by product marketing and vendors that are more interested in selling their products than they are in solving business challenges. The end result is often a product sale that may solve some of the customer challenges rather than focusing first on the customer's needs and then providing a solution solely based on those needs.

A solid desktop design begins with an in-depth understanding and review of your business challenges, drivers, and the technical and non-technical issues that your teams are dealing with. The direction of the business, including planned growth and expansion, acquisition, or other major changes must be factored in when conceiving a desktop strategy.

Technical requirements also extend beyond normal design and integration efforts. Businesses need to evaluate their own internal technical capabilities and skill sets when embarking on a new desktop strategy. Often the skill sets required to design, implement, maintain, and support a new virtualized desktop environment extend past what a traditional desktop support and engineering team is trained and prepared for.

With this understanding of the existing environment, technology and required skill sets, a proper design can be built around the business's specific requirements and not one focused on a specific vendor or technology. This forward thinking and the effort expended on the front side of a project can lead to great results on the implementation of the solution and potentially avoid unnecessary purchases of unneeded products.

Approaching the design of a desktop solution by focusing on the business requirements rather than on available technology can yield some interesting results. First, there have been and continue to be significant advances in virtualization technologies from many different vendors. By focusing on the requirements first, the value of these enhancements in relation to your specific requirements can be measured better. A clear understanding of the requirements will also help to focus your solution search on those that best address your needs.

In some cases, the challenge being addressed is more specific and less strategic in nature. Creating an alternative desktop design to address a directed or tactical problem is a great way to get started with desktop or application virtualization. This way a challenge can be addressed, ROI can be realized, and a solution with future implications for the rest of the environment can be put in place.

Keep in mind that even a tactical design requires a solid framework and plan to work from. Consider that decisions made on the tactical design and its implementation can be the foundation for future growth, and as such expansion should be considered a design element even where it cannot be accurately predicted at the time of the initial design.

The Dangers of Being Too Tactical...Stuck in the Weeds
One danger that is often faced by organizations delving into the desktop virtualization space is focusing too much on a specific use case. This could be a group of offshore developers who need better access into the network. The tactical solution is to put together technology from the vendors they are already working with to solve that specific challenge. Not much thought is put into the scalability of the solution, and even user-experience features are overlooked in an effort to quickly solve the specific challenge. In many cases, this is a short-term win for the group implementing the solution, however, if the tactical solution proves a success and initial confidence raised, more use cases for the technology emerge.

This is where the challenges begin to show themselves. The initial tactical solution is expanded and built on to the point where the management of it becomes a bigger burden than the problems it was initially intended to solve. Also, as the solution scales, some of the design elements and their costs to the organization begin to surface.

Another potential gotcha is when a solution meets a tactical need and is reviewed against a larger set of criteria and requirements. The tactical solution, which has the ability to meet or exceed the initial requirements, can be dismissed because it fails to meet the higher-level requirements. In this case, the business loses out on a potential win for their environment, and the project is either shut down or continues to revolve and evolve around requirements that may not be practically achievable.

Core to the challenge of scaling out the tactical design is the reality that desktop requirements and growth patterns are fundamentally different from the lessons learned in the server virtualization world. Virtualized servers are often deployed one at a time and for a specific purpose. This means that each server is unique and requires dedicated disk space and time to configure the application and services that will be hosted in a one-off manner.

Contrary to that design, virtualized desktops grow in packs. This means that the requests for desktops won't normally come in one at a time, but can come in much quicker as use cases are defined and as new users are added to the solution. Even with the pain associated with virtual server sprawl, desktop sprawl has the potential to be many times greater and much more erratic.

The tactical solution design rarely takes this kind of growth or scalability into account. Available resources go on short rations as the desktop count increases, and the strain on server, storage, and network resources can begin to affect the user experience even further, reducing confidence in the solution. This approach also fails to take into account design elements that are not specifically related to solving the immediate challenge. For example, perhaps the immediate group of users has no requirements to view any graphically intensive content that may be a broader requirement for other use cases down the road. Other design issues that could be initially overlooked are those related to security or regulatory compliance. These have the potential to derail a solution pretty quickly.

Another example of a common tactical solution that has scalability ramifications is in the use of shared storage for the virtual desktops. Commonly, pilots and small production implementations begin with a simple approach to desktop virtualization by mimicking the "one virtual machine to one virtual disk file" design that is commonplace in server virtualization. This method is easily employed and demonstrates how effective a virtualized desktop can be. However, when the solution starts to grow and more desktops come online, the available storage capacity and performance quickly get overloaded and storage costs skyrocket while performance falls just as quickly.

In both of these examples, understanding and accepting that the solution may grow beyond the boundaries of the initial implementation will certainly lead to a more in-depth assessment and requirements-gathering exercise. By involving members and stakeholders from other business and technical units in your organization, the picture of what the solution could become will materialize and then the appropriate technology and design can be applied.

Tactical solutions can be very successful and also very limited in scope. For example, virtualizing the desktop may not be the best way to solve your problem. In some cases, solutions such as application virtualization or WAN optimization may be all that's needed to solve the tactical challenge. This way the tactical solution may be rolled into a larger solution in the future. Don't lose sight of the important fact that - even though it may be a point solution to begin with - a more strategic or broader use case may come up over time.

Last, the solution implemented as a tactical solution does not have to be enterprise-scale. Actually, biting off smaller, more manageable chunks of the user population can be more effective. Having a roadmap in place that acknowledges and anticipates growth will ensure that the solution that is put in place has a chance to succeed as it grows.

The Dangers of Being Too Strategic...Stuck in the Clouds
The opposite of being too tactical is obviously being too strategic. First, let's define what that means. Some organizations are looking for a silver bullet for their desktop strategy. Even though they may have defined appropriate use cases for leveraging some form of desktop virtualization, unless they can define a solution that meets the needs of every corner of the organization they are paralyzed and will continue to analyze the marketplace and do exhaustive ROI studies that inevitably leave them with the status quo.

A one-size-fits-all approach is rarely going to work in any organization. Even if an assessment is done that reviews how desktops are managed, requirements and exceptions will surface that necessitate a deviation from the strategic design. This is where hybrid approaches that form the basis for realistic desktop designs come from. The traditional or physical desktop environment is a mix of laptops, desktops, home computers, and special-use workstations. Combine that with the myriad desktop, security, and inventory management tools and it becomes clear that even the existing desktop environment isn't a one-size-fits-all model and involves different design elements and concessions.

Attempting to consolidate all of your user needs into a single solution will certainly compromise the design to a point where it probably won't reflect a practical or actionable design. Take into consideration that there are components of your new desktop design that can be shared by multiple user groups, but maybe not all.

Strategic initiatives also attempt to quantify all of the cost savings and avoidance before the solution is completely designed. This happens because the design effort is an investment on the part of the customer, and requires an outlay of internal resources and consulting fees. While some generalities may be definable at this stage, until a design is agreed on, the real cost savings may not be fully discovered.

A thorough analysis of the existing costs of managing the current desktop environment is also required to capture an accurate picture of the cost savings a proposed solution might offer. In some organizations, there are costs in place for desktops and associated IT services that are assessed back to the business units; however, they may not accurately reflect the actual cost of supporting the desktops. Comparing the current charges to the business units versus the cost to implement, manage, and support a new virtual desktop environment may not be an "apples to apples" comparison.

Be realistic in initiating a desktop virtualization project. With tangible and serviceable goals in place that take into account the challenges that need to be solved with more strategic organizational goals, you can escape the "paralysis by analysis" that many large projects run into.

However, don't lose sight of the value of TCO and ROI exercises. They are critical to defining a project's expected results. However, when looking to design your solution, consider that there may be a practical middle ground that lets you begin to create a design and execute on it without having every question answered.

Given the pace of the virtualization ecosystem today, by the time all the questions are answered, there will be a new set of answers and new questions. As with all large technology projects, you eventually have to put a stake in the ground somewhere, and by focusing on an Uber-strategic approach, solutions may be missed.

Conclusion: Finding the Practical "Middle Ground"
The goal of this article is to showcase the extremes in focusing too hard on a desktop virtualization solution from the tactical or strategic perspective. There is always a middle ground or compromise that can be made in your organization to achieve significant benefits from the virtualization solutions that are part of the design.

If you narrow your design for supporting the desktop down to logical components, such as desktop virtualization versus application virtualization versus presentation virtualization, you can mix and match each piece to each user. That way a centrally managed solution is created that can be pieced together based on each user or business unit's needs. Now the solutions present themselves as "network services" rather than individual configurations. By thinking centrally and removing the connection between the user and the physical desktop, the possibilities become almost endless.

Consolidating use cases into manageable and definable "buckets" offers a clearer picture of the environment. Create a balance between blindly implementing solutions and becoming too focused on justifying them. Find the practical middle ground.

More Stories By Jim Sanzone

Jim Sanzone is Practice Director at VIRTERA. He is responsible for developing and designing detailed methodologies and virtualization solutions to increase clients' business efficiencies. With significant industry experience as a strategy consultant for Fortune 500 clients, he has been instrumental in creating proven virtualization solutions that leverage leading applications and technologies designed to improve enterprise organizations operating results and effectiveness. Prior to joining VIRTERA, Sanzone served as a Network Analyst Consultant as Webster Bank. As a senior member of the IT team he championed several initiatives that resulted in new technology adoption and design which substantially improved operational processes and client satisfaction.

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