Desktop virtualization: A revolution

by Sanjay Deshmukh    Jun 04, 2010

Why are so many IT organizations supporting 21st century enterprises with a decades-old desktop management strategy, or a strategy that is not working for IT or end users? Desktops are assembled and hard-coded individually on an ongoing basis. State-of-the-art networks carry information at express speeds — yet IT staff members need to go on-site visiting every PC to perform even the most basic maintenance tasks.

While there is no shortage of innovation to address fast-changing business requirements, rolling out new technologies can take months while burning through scarce resources quickly. In a business environment that prizes instant responsiveness and anytime, anywhere connectivity, employees remain all too dependent on a specific machine — and on costly, labor-intensive IT processes that keep it running. It is no surprise that IT executives everywhere are looking for a better way — which lies in ‘the future of desktops.’

Desktop virtualization technologies and solutions offer a fundamentally better approach to desktop architecture. Leading enterprises of all kinds are already using desktop virtualization to modernize IT, lower TCO, improve flexibility, streamline support and enable innovation by freeing IT from the burdens of an outdated desktop model.

The old way: Slow, expensive, and painful for users and IT alike
It is hard to imagine a less efficient, more cumbersome way of provisioning desktops than traditional distributed computing.

Traditional management tools and processes
Traditional management tools and processes

Change is costly. Applications are embedded into the operating system, making updates and management costly and time-consuming. Any kind of upgrade, such as the introduction of new operating systems or applications, is extremely slow and expensive. For example, Gartner estimates that the adoption of Windows 7 will cost organizations US $1,035 to US $1,930 per user.

Users and organizations lack flexibility. Although enterprises increasingly value anytime, anywhere productivity, users are able to access their personalized desktops — including applications, data, preferences, templates, macros and other customizations — only through a single, specific device, strictly limiting their mobility.

Data is vulnerable. With user data stored locally on their main PC, employees who work remotely often rely on memory sticks, e-mail, and other ad hoc methods to move their data across machines, creating an ongoing security risk.

Support is complex and expensive. The typical three-tier help desk model, with full engagement at each level, is costly and resource-intensive, notching up high support costs. Endpoint management also poses a significant burden for IT, from inventory to retirement, with specialized skills needed in every location and repetitive processes consuming valuable time and resources.

Poor asset leverage saps resources. The need to refresh endpoints every three or four years ties up more than half of the typical IT budget, sapping resources that could otherwise be used for innovation.

The better way: Desktop virtualization
As the foundation of a new desktop architecture, desktop virtualization frees IT from the myriad costs and constraints of traditional approaches. Management is centralized; eliminating the need for IT staff to travel from endpoint to endpoint, and the storage of all desktop images in a single location improves data security and simplifies backup and recovery. Since they can access their complete desktop environment on-demand, users are freed from reliance on a specific machine and gain tremendous flexibility and convenience in choosing when and where to work.

It is also important to avoid a one-size-fits-all mentality about desktop virtualization strategies. There is no single ‘right’ answer; depending on the requirements of the organization and its users, it may be appropriate to consider several options beyond Hosted Virtual Machine (VM) based Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) desktops. These include local streamed desktops, hosted shared desktops (i.e. terminal services), and local VM based desktops (client-side virtualization) — or even deployment of more than one of these models within the same organization. Irrespective of the course followed, certain key requirements remain constant. Application virtualization is essential to improve portability, manageability, and compatibility. Furthermore, to ensure effective adoption, IT should make strategic use of user experience optimization to deliver PC-like performance on the WAN and minimize bandwidth utilization on the LAN.

Centralized management: The power of one
In the traditional distributed computing model, IT must manage hundreds or thousands of desktops individually across the enterprise, and the burden of support increases in tandem with the size of the workforce. More users you have more are the instances of each application and operating system you have to manage, and the more complex each desktop becomes. With desktop virtualization based on single image management, these numbers shrink to one — one copy of each application, one copy of Windows and one point of management for the whole enterprise. This means that:

- Updates to applications and operating systems can be made once, and then propagated instantly across all users in every location.

- IT has a single point of management for each desktop component in isolation, eliminating the need to account for an infinite number of combinations in each user’s desktop image.

- Unlike VDI, in which a separate desktop image is hosted for each user, single-image management involves minimal storage impact.

Any location, any device — better user experience
No longer dependent on a single corporate-issued PC for their familiar applications and data, users can log into the same personalized environment from any location, using any device: a netbook, a personal computer at home, a rental, a loaner from a friend, or even an airport kiosk. Free from the need to always access from the same personal device users can become instantly productive at a moment’s notice, improving business agility. If one machine goes down, they can effortlessly switch to another and pick up exactly where they left off. Now, a lost or stolen computer poses no security risk, since all data has remained centralized in the data center.

Self-service desktops, on-demand apps
A centralized desktop management model means more effective and easier to maintain applications without limiting the ability of end users to manage their own environment. With application virtualization, IT can control data access, manage fewer desktop images, eliminate system conflicts and reduce application regression testing (ART is any type of software testing that seeks to uncover software errors by partially retesting a modified program/application). Adding, updating and removing applications becomes a simple task since users can leverage a centralized self-service application store, enabling them to access applications instantly from anywhere.

Streamlined support
A significant number of end user service calls result from local software conflicts, corrupt applications and other endpoint-specific problems. With desktop virtualization, a single golden master image of each application and operating system remains in pristine condition, eliminating whole classes of problems. Support becomes far simpler, and many IT organizations can eliminate the service entirely and move toward a self-service model in which IT staff can address the narrower range of problems that may still occur.

Innovation, not inventory management
With much of its traditional role shifted to the data center, the endpoint device becomes less an island of technology than a receiver for technology originating elsewhere, with much more limited local support needed. In this sense, it more closely resembles a standard office phone and can now be managed in the same way — plug it in and walk away. By simplifying endpoint management, IT can offload both the budget impact and the workloads involved and increase its focus on more strategic functions like planning and innovation.

End-point longevity
The standard endpoint refresh cycle of 3-4 years is costly and wasteful, with today’s state-of-the-art computer reduced all too soon to a waste disposal problem. By reducing client-side complexity and moving the maintenance of standard applications and operating systems to the data center, desktop virtualization lets you use the same endpoint twice as long while maintaining the same high level of performance.

Although it is still a relatively new market, enterprises are fast realizing the potential of implementing desktop virtualization, whether it be simply streaming virtualized applications or introducing hosted virtual desktops to enhance organizational efficiency and drive down costs. This is against a backdrop where globalization, outsourcing and increased mobility are decentralizing business processes. Yet shrinking IT budgets and increasing IT accountability for information security and service-level agreements underscore the need for centralization. It is clear that IT system complexity hinders business agility and resilience — critical success factors in today’s businesses. Thus the need for simplified management systems is a key driver for desktop virtualization.