Virtualized Desktops, Right for My SMB?

What is a Virtualized Desktop

Chances are, you or someone you know, has been working in a virtualized network environment.   For those who are unfamiliar, virtualization is the ability to run multiple operating systems, such as Windows, Linux, etc., on one physical piece of hardware.  In server virtualization, this means you have one or more “virtual servers” running on the same physical server.  In desktop virtualization, the workstation looks and behaves like a regular desktop PC; however, the software and data are located elsewhere, in data centres.  The virtual desktop is essentially an empty computer.  A virtual desktop is sometimes referred to as a hosted desktop or a “thin client.”

Senior systems administrator Jesus Hernandez thinks desktop virtualization is a no-brainer: “From my deployment perspective, it’s 10 times faster to deploy 20 more machines. Think configuration, think software base — standard software that they all have to share — and then maybe custom applications. That takes way, way less time than having to actually physically go to a user’s office and take CDs and run them from there.”(Is VDI Still Viable?  8/4/12, virtualizationreview.com)  And there are various software products, like Unidesk, which provide application packaging and delivery for VDI, simplifying management tasks further.)

Are There Benefits?

Server virtualization is beneficial in several ways: less energy is used; less space is needed; and capital expenses are minimized.  This network environment is more reliable and easier to manage.  Maybe you’ve become aware of these advantages, which server virtualization can bring to many types of SMB’s.  Now you are a True Believe.

What about desktop virtualization?  Sounds great, right?  Not so fast.  The advantages and disadvantages of virtual desktop technology (VDI) are harder to calculate than with virtual servers.  Whether or not VDI is a good idea for your SMB requires a thorough cost/benefit analysis.

To roughly summarize the cost benefits:

  1.  VDI and its thin clients are less expensive than regular PC’s, and the prices continue to drop with greater adoption in the business world.
  2. Thin clients do not have to be replaced as often as ordinary PC’s.  (Thin clients last six to seven years, as opposed to four or five for a PC.)
  3. Thin client equipment needs much less power than a fully functional PC.
  4. When deployed properly, VDI reduces the amount of storage space used, and thus reducing costs significantly.  Gartner’s Wolf again:  “If I’m a storage vendor, I don’t want organizations with thousands of users all sharing this common desktop image, and just using some technology up in the software stack to segment users and give them the customizations that they need. I’d rather give every user a dedicated image just like I did in the physical desktop world, and simply sell you terabytes upon terabytes upon terabytes of storage to keep all that together.”

Reality Check

But as the saying goes, if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is!  Businesses which have implemented VDI have another side of the TCO story to tell.  As Scott Lowe recounts it at Wikibon (19/09/12), things are a bit more complicated than they initially seemed:

“A few years ago, pundits were lauding the huge financial benefits of VDI. After all, by replacing the fat, expensive, difficult to manage PC with a cheap thin client that never wears out, there has to be nothing but financial upside, right?

“Reality set in as early adopters discovered that VDI carried with it many unanticipated challenges. In order for VDI to be done right, organizations needed to spend significant dollars on powerful storage, fast servers, expensive hypervisor and Microsoft licensing, and terminals that weren’t too inexpensive. Many organizations found that the actual real cost of VDI was, at the very, very best, a break-even proposition.”

There Are Advantages

So cost savings is iffy, at least for now.  But what about the many other touted advantages, such as VDI’s promise to and to provide increased security and worker productivity for your SMB? Here are some of the advantages from a business standpoint.

Anytime – Anywhere

  1. VDI makes the “anytime/anywhere” imperative of today’s business operation a reality for SMB’s.  Now workers can become an estimated 5 to 10% more productive by being able to work anywhere and anytime on their consumer devices –such as their personal notebook computers, PC’s, tablets and smart phones.

VMware maintains:

“VMware View Client allows you to use existing Windows, Mac or Linux based laptops or desktops, thin clients, zero clients or mobile devices to access your virtual desktop form the home or office.  VMware View Client with Local Mode enables productivity for mobile and offline end-users while leveraging the centralized provisioning and policy control for IT. Simply download an encrypted virtual desktop onto the local client device where the operating system, applications and data can be securely accessed with or without a network connection. Any changes can be synchronized back to the datacenter when back on the network.  Take your desktop on the go with the VMware View Client for iPad or Android and leverage the high performance VMware View with PCoIP display protocol on your tablet across the LAN, WAN or 3G. Integration with the VMware View Security Server ensures simple and secure access for end-users.”  (VMware.com)

Security

  1. There is a security advantage also.  Since there is no data stored on thin clients, or the mobile devices accessing the system there is no risk of losing proprietary information if a device falls into the wrong hands.  The data is safe and centrally managed, says Jeremy Gruenke, Johnsonville Sausage, a happy VDI client, at Logicalis.com.

 

Security is enhanced in yet another way.  VDI templates limit what users can access at their workstation.  This allows a company to implement corporate policies that restrict internet usage by employees, no longer putting the entire network at risk from lax users, claims Bill Parker, Virtualization Expert, Logicalis.com.

System Management

  1. Adherents claim that virtual desktops are easier to manage.  “They are easier to patch and upgrade, and they have slower generational changes so you are not swapping out newer versions all the time.  Because of the centralized server architecture, everything is backed up centrally, which is easier on data center operations and eliminates local drive issues.” (Bill Parker, Logicalis.com)

In Summary

To summarize, then, desktop virtualization has many advantages, although cost is not currently one of them, despite the claims.  The other advantages listed above are real, however, managing virtual desktops is not as easy to manage as adherents maintain, due to the sheer complexity involved in VDI, and there are security challenges as well.

“Gartner’s Wolf describes the complexity issue in more problematic terms, saying providing shared desktop images at scale is a daunting challenge — and made more complex, for example, in the case of user customizations, such as plug-ins, which require an application-personalization layer capability available from vendors such as Citrix, Unidesk Corp., MokaFive Inc. and AppSense.   Upgrading networks is a frequent VDI requirement. This includes ensuring that endpoints are provided with sufficient bandwidth, Wi-Fi networks are updated to accommodate iPad users, and additional network access control for connecting personal devices to separate physical networks is provided.”

As for improved security, there are detractors as well:

“The major security weakness in almost all large companies is their e-mail system. The companies have to provide their employees with it, and they can’t be too restrictive when it comes to the kinds of attachments they allow. However, if they become too permissible, the floodgates can open.

“’So I can attach an Excel spreadsheet with sales performance numbers to an e-mail, and there you go.  Even though you’re doing it through a locked-down corporate desktop, those are the types of security holes you’ve got to patch. Theoretically, it sounds more secure because people don’t have a file written to the endpoint that they’re carrying around. In reality, if they open up that application remotely, they can look at a document, access their e-mail, cut and paste between the two windows, and you have a big security hole.’ Once again, the point is that VDI doesn’t inherently resolve security challenges.  (Bartoli, “Is VDI Still Viable?)

VDI companies insist that these and other difficulties are being addressed and fixes are being created.  There are also ways that through proper planning and gradual, organic implementation, possible problems can be anticipated and avoided.

As Bruce Hoard, VirtualizationReview.com, concludes,

“At this point in time, VDI is still maturing, and it’s still too early to tell how it will evolve. On one side of the discussion, there’s a dearth of compelling financial models outside of call centers, where workers sit in front of dedicated machines, working on a very limited set of applications. On the other side, VDI installations are thriving at large financial institutions and in colleges and universities.

“Thousands of CIOs can’t be wrong… they want to talk about what this technology means to them. That bodes well for the unforeseen future, which is enough to stir the pot for now. VDI is clearly viable.”

Bottom Line

For the enterprise company with workstations to replace, VDI might be appropriate.  For the SMB, it’s a hard sell today unless you like being on the leading edge of technology.