While reviewing his budget back in 2010, Craig Hyatt, IT director at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, realized that one department alone had 300 desktops that were at least 4 years old and would need replacing in the next year or two. New computers would be faster, he knew, but they would have the same disadvantages that desktops traditionally have: malware, viruses and management issues that demand a lot of support time.
A new computer's purchase price is always just a small portion of its total cost, Hyatt says. A $700 computer can easily cost four to five times that amount after five years of maintenance and support. And with 1,500 desktops on campus, Hyatt's team had its hands — and its budget — full.
Instead of purchasing new desktops, UNC Chapel Hill decided to invest in application and desktop virtualization. The IT team began working with Citrix Systems in 2011, adding more powerful equipment to the data center to begin virtualizing the university's desktops. As they retire those devices, they're replacing them with thin clients.
"It's the sort of thing I suggest everyone look at and see if it fits in their environment," says Hyatt.
And for good reason. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and application virtualization eliminate a lot of the headaches and costs that come with traditional desktops, without detracting from the user experience. Thin clients are less expensive than full desktops, and they last longer. Plus, the virtual desktops and the applications they run are managed centrally, so they slash the IT department's maintenance and support burden as well as costs. Sometimes the results are so seamless that users barely notice the difference.
In fact, when Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., first got its virtual desktop infrastructure up and running in 2008, the IT department held an open house in a computer lab to show faculty the new setup. A few students were working in the lab at the time, and when some professors asked them what they thought about the new equipment, the students were puzzled. They asked if the mice were new; they had no idea the desktops had been replaced with thin clients.
"We knew at that point that this was perfect," says Michael Marshall, senior systems and network administrator at Rockhurst. "That's the goal of any IT project — to be seamless."
A Major Improvement
Although IT managers strive for transparency, end users often notice some significant improvements with VDI and application virtualization. For instance, they can log in from any device and have the same look and feel that they would have on their desktops. This means they can get to the same applications, folders and files whether they're at home, at school or on the road, explains Hyatt.
Another advantage: "Customers have been very pleasantly surprised that they no longer have to use a VPN. Ours is pretty stable," Hyatt says of UNC's virtual private network. "But with this, you just go to a web address, log in, and there are all your applications."
His team is working hard to make the move to client virtualization seamless for users. For example, if a user can stream music off the Internet while on the desktop but can't stream in a virtualized environment, that person might consider the new system a step back. So, while streaming music might not serve a business purpose, the ability to stream music in a virtualized environment would help that user embrace the change, which is Hyatt's goal. "One or two people who are happy is a good thing," he says. "We want people to be change evangelists, rather than change averse."
In fact, the growth of application and client virtualization has been largely driven by the goal of giving users what they want: namely, to use their own devices for work, says Brett Waldman, senior research analyst for cloud and virtualization system software at IDC. Organizations need to figure out a way to deliver services and applications to multiple devices and multiple operating systems, which is where client virtualization comes in. "It's definitely in a growing state," Waldman says.
50% The percentage of cost savings VMware View 5 promises on desktop operations, along with increased availability, reliability and security
When UNC Chapel Hill began implementing Citrix in its data center, the IT department had planned to virtualize all of its desktops because, at the time, users were accustomed to a standard Windows desktop presentation. But in the course of planning, there was a big swing in end-user behavior. Suddenly, people were using smartphones and tablets, and the desktop wasn't as important anymore. Users were more concerned with accessing applications on various devices, Hyatt found.
His team did some research and found their dollars would go further with application virtualization. They decided to go that route for a majority of their users, and to deploy VDI only for those who need the full desktop experience. "There is a place for both," Hyatt says.
His team now works to determine the power users who need VDI, as opposed to users who only need application virtualization for specific tasks. For instance, developers, who need complete control over a desktop to test software, are good candidates for VDI, as are accountants, who use multiple applications and spreadsheets at the same time.
Many refer to client virtualization as VDI, but they are not the same, Waldman explains. With VDI, an IT department hosts a virtual machine on a central server. Some users just need an application or two, and application virtualization can be more affordable than VDI, he adds.
Waldman suggests organizations look at their infrastructure and segment users into five or six buckets that make sense for the organization, then determine the needs of each. Task workers, for instance, might be fine with application virtualization, but power users would likely need access to a full desktop.
"VDI is not a one-size-fits-all solution," says Waldman. "You need to understand where your users are."
The Price Is Right
In 2008, Rockhurst was an early adopter of VDI, so the university had to piece much of the system together using a combination of Cisco Systems and VMware products. Marshall says if he were starting with VDI today, he would look into the prebuilt systems, which weren't as readily available back then. But, he adds, "I would stick with VMware."
The switch required a lot of upfront costs for servers, storage area networks and licensing, but the university saved money because it was due for a major desktop refresh, which would have been far more costly than the 230 thin clients that the school wound up purchasing, says Marshall.
That's why IDC's Waldman advises IT staff to take a step back before signing on with a provider. "Understand the upfront capital costs that you'll need to implement this," he says.
Once an IT staff moves past the capital costs, the savings come quickly, adds Kevin Egan, computer labs manager at Seattle University, which deployed VMware View in 2009. For example, buying 500 new computers at $600 to $700 each is a major expense. With VDI, Egan says he can buy thin clients that are half the price and last a lot longer.
VDI also reduces the cost of maintenance and support. Egan supports more than 40 labs and 750 machines on campus. Each quarter, he would have to create new images for different labs and user groups, and then go around campus imaging the machines. Now, he creates one master image, which he can adjust to make separate images, and pushes them all out automatically. This frees him up for more critical IT tasks.
"Any system needs a human hand to keep it running, but it's minimal compared with what I was doing before," says Egan.
What's So Great About VDI?
In addition to the potential cost savings, virtual desktop infrastructure offers ease of maintenance and support. The support team can create master images, adjust them for different labs or users, and push them out automatically without leaving their desks. If a user has a problem with a device, a support person can log in to the account and address it from any location.
It's more efficient for users too. If a machine crashes while a student is working on a paper, instead of losing the paper and computing time, that user can log in to another thin client and pull up the exact same desktop — including the paper he or she was working on.
Plus, adds Michael Marshall, senior systems and network administrator at Rockhurst University in Kansas City, Mo., "It's low-powered, has no moving parts and generates less heat and noise. VDI has a lot of nice advantages."
VDI also adds another layer of security, says Brett Waldman, senior research analyst for cloud and virtualization system software at IDC. He says administrators can set it up so that the virtual desktops stream only to trusted endpoints.
With VDI, Seattle University gets more use from all of its machines. For example, if a student needs to work on a PC, but all of the computer lab PCs are being used, the student can log in and pull up a PC image from a Mac, explains Lab Manager Kevin Egan. Students can also go to a URL and download the client onto their own computers so they can work when the computer labs are not open.
"There are so many reasons that the virtual desktop infrastructure is just a great thing," Egan says.