Managing desktops virtually offers significant cost and time savings to customers of IT solution providers. Here, Layer8 Training's Senior Technical Trainer and Master Citrix Certified Instructor looks at the advantages of “virtual” desktops, and offers insight on the benefits this soution provides over more traditional PC management. — Jennifer Bosavage, editor.
When I start discussing with my customers the concepts behind virtual desktops, VDI, and where the various solutions fit in, I first help them understand the challenges of where they are. The approach works for IT solution providers as well. Let's start with “traditional” desktops. Those workstations and laptops run their own individual operating systems, and locally installed applications. That isn't necessarily a bad thing.
But, from an IT perspective, the approach has many challenges when it comes to ongoing support and maintenance. The OS needs to be maintained; hotfixes and service packs need to be applied; applications have to be installed, updated, and fixed. There are also risks to the physical hardware, for instance, hard drives failing or users dropping laptops.
So, what's at risk here? For the end-user, it’s time, security, and productivity. For the enterprise, it’s very costly to manage hundreds of desktops for hundreds of users. The IT team spends time and resources running around to all the users and their devices in their respective physical locations. The traditional model of OS and applications running on user's endpoint devices eventually puts the burden on the IT team to configure, maintain, and support a decentralized distribution of desktops/workstations across an environment.
Now, if we examine “virtual” desktops and related VDI solutions, our considerations change. First, we begin by decoupling or segregating the idea of what the end-user runs from where it is accessed. We do this by shifting or moving the desktop — the OS and applications and data that the users run — into the data center. We put together a hypervisor running multiple virtual machines for desktop access. Or we deploy blade PC chasses in the data center (physical machines). Or we do both: We have options.
Next, we enable user access from their endpoint device and the endpoint device is whatever the user wants to use to get access to the remote virtual desktop: PC, Mac, thin-client, laptop, iPAD, netbook, smart phone/mobile device. Depending on your VDI solution, there are options here, too.
Bringing the desktops into the datacenter (or the cloud) lets us centralize the desktop, which simplifies support and management. However, if IT is currently supporting 1,000 user desktops and all we do is move them into the datacenter, then we still have 1,000 desktops or touch points -- they just happen to be in the data center. That on its own probably isn't a good enough justification for a virtual desktop solution, at least probably not for a large number of users.
What really drives the value of virtual desktop solution for most environments is the ability to stop supporting user desktops on a per-desktop basis. Instead of supporting/patching/maintaining desktops on a 1:1 basis, the next step is to develop a single virtual desktop that can be used for many different users. We update/maintain the base desktop and this results in the update affecting many different users. Using a 1:many approach, IT can feasibly provide support for those 1,000 virtual desktops by maintaining only a handful of common images. That starts saving time and cost.
With Citrix XenDesktop, there are multiple options for how to virtualize desktops with a VDI solution. We can provide users with access to regular, datacenter-hosted desktops from either physical or virtual infrastructures; those can be maintained on a 1:1 basis. Users have more control over their systems where they can install and update applications and their virtual desktop gives them the same experience as their local desktop. We can also provide users with access to virtual desktops delivered on a 1:many ratio using technologies such as XenDesktop's Machine Creation Services or Citrix Provisioning Services. In that scenario, users have less control over their desktops. The tradeoff is simplified IT administration: We update one base image and all the dependent desktops are updated. That alleviates many common support calls. When users install or update a drivers/plugins, or when users clicked on that wrong Web site or e-mail, the effects are minimized.
The key idea is that when you finally start looking at a Virtual Desktop VDI solutions, we want the solution to solve problems and simplify IT management and support. To accomplish those goals, it's also important to remember there is a range of solutions, not just one answer. As a result, IT has several new tools to rely on. I'm a firm believer in the right tool for the right job. Not every job requires a hammer (though in some cases the hammer still works, it's just not pretty).
Before implementing a VDI solution, it is important to examine your end user's needs and categorize them. Some users will greatly benefit from a centrally managed desktop with minimal requirements to install or customize applications and easy support/recovery options. Other users may need the reliability and additional backup capabilities of a centrally managed desktop, but may still require the same level of control over the applications and settings inside the desktop as they had locally. Finally, some users may still need the traditional desktop experience. By understanding our users' needs and our IT objectives, we can identify the best solutions for each.