Apr 29 2010

To Virtualize or Not Virtualize

How can you tell if desktop virtualization is right for your organization?

Desktop virtualization, accomplished through a virtual desktop infrastructure, can be a big resource and budget saver. But how can you know if it's right for your organization? Consider these three points when making the decision to leap into VDI.

Current Experience and Infrastructure

If you've already made the jump into server virtualization technologies, you can leverage some of your existing infrastructure and expertise.

The current VDI solutions have three components: a backend virtual machine manager; the client (a thin client or web-based front end); and a broker, which connects the clients with the appropriate virtual desktop instance. Often, the back-end virtual machine manager and infrastructure can be used in a VDI solution. Your engineers' experience with these technologies will also save you a lot of up-front cost.

You'll also have a jump-start if you own, or have experience with, a Terminal Services infrastructure. Although Terminal Services and VDI seem similar, they are fundamentally different. With Terminal Services, each user receives a separate session on a shared operating system. With desktop virtualization, each user receives a separate operating system, so the isolation is at the operating system level instead of the session level. In both systems there is a protocol over which the client communicates with the infrastructure, and knowledge of how that protocol works in your business is also valuable when planning a successful deployment of VDI.

Understand the ROI

With all the buzz surrounding virtual desktop infrastructures, CIOs and managers are asking, “Where is the return on investment?” First, you need a thin client for each user, which doesn't cost much more than an inexpensive PC. There are claims that thin clients have a longer lifecycle, but given the current rate at which this technology is changing and how often businesses recycle PCs, the useful life is about the same. Second, you will still need a desktop operating system license for each user.

The big savings are in soft costs, which are notoriously difficult to calculate. VDI champions point to ease of maintenance and improved security. Because users share a base image, it is very easy for your IT staff to deploy new software and patches: simply update the base image and ask users to restart their machines. Because the data all reside on servers (and not PCs), your sensitive data is in the data center and not floating about on someone's unsecured notebook. In fact, client security becomes almost a nonissue.

This does not mean, however, that you can scrap your desktop management software. There are likely to be some in your organization who can't use VDI – for instance, those who rely on applications that don't support virtualization– so you'll still need some way of managing desktops (and servers). But the ability to update dozens if not hundreds of users' systems at once is an asset, regardless of the effort it takes to calculate its value.

Find the Right Target Groups

A virtual desktop infrastructure makes complete sense in certain scenarios; target those for your first deployments. A training facility is a great place to start. A single VDI instance for each class can be fashioned and instantly made available to a group of clients in the classroom, which means that no imaging of hard disks is required. In fact, multiple choices can be displayed to the user as they “boot” the thin client, so different classes during the day and evening can be run without any physical swapping of hardware. And unless your company is in the business, you're better off working out glitches with trainees than with users who are actually interfacing with customers.

Like the training room example, you want your first business case to involve dozens of users who do the same basic job or use very simple applications. A call center comes immediately to mind: Desktops there may simply need a browser and whatever e-mail or messaging application you use.

The key to maximizing your soft-cost savings is to identify the largest number of people who can use similar desktops. It doesn't make sense to deploy a virtual desktop infrastructure to a set of users who each need their own operating system image. Not only do you forfeit the ROI in soft costs, but you also essentially trade the cheap processor, memory and hard drive of a PC for the more expensive server hardware needed for VDI. But if you can find groups suited to this virtualization technology, you'll be able to reap the benefits and cost savings of a more secure, manageable infrastructure.