Supporting big, fat desktops has been a challenge since these devices first emerged more than three decades ago. In many cases, enterprises spend a lot of time checking the devices, patching operating systems, downloading application updates, blocking malware, and securing corporate information. These processes often result in many calls to the service desk from frustrated users who clicked on the wrong icon or don’t understand how to keep their systems up to date.
Recently, a new end-user device option has emerged—desktop virtualization—and it promises to dramatically change the support equation. Many vendors are now offering virtual desktop interface (VDI) solutions, including Citrix, Dell, Microsoft, NComputing, Inc., Virtual Bridges, Inc., and VMware. These products reduce support requirements by minimizing the number of moving parts on user desktops and the number of touches required to provide support. Thus, support staffs become more productive. Desktop
virtualization also gives corporations a simple way to extend support from traditional PCs and laptops to mobile devices, smartphones, and tablets.
With VDI technology, the operating systems and the applications that once ran directly on a user’s desktop computer exist instead as virtual machines residing on central servers. Each server potentially supports hundreds of desktops. With this server-centric approach, employees rely on stripped-down thin clients instead of fully-loaded PCs or laptops.
However, this technology has some hurdles to clear if we hope to see widespread adoption. Companies may have to upgrade their data center infrastructures significantly in order to deliver adequate response times to employees. These solutions also may not work with every application. Nevertheless, corporations are becoming more interested in VDI. “We expect to see a 50-percent increase in desktop virtualization use from 2012 to 2013,” stated Chris Wolf, vice president of research at Gartner, Inc.
Bye-Bye Windows XP
One driver behind the jump is Microsoft’s decision to stop supporting its Windows XP operating system, which garnered worldwide acceptance. Unveiled in October 2001, Windows XP’s influence peaked in January 2007, with a 76-percent market share and 400 million copies sold. In March 2008, Microsoft announced plans to phase out the popular OS. OEMs stopped bundling Windows XP with their systems in June 2008, Microsoft ceased selling it in January 2009, and all support (including security patches) is slated to be dropped on April 8, 2014. Despite the five-year movement toward obsolescence, Windows XP still runs on 28 percent of corporate Windows computers, according to Ovum Research. Since many companies will soon have to change to a new operating system, they may take a close look at desktop virtualization.
Reduced costs are another factor behind the rising interest. Thin client systems include fewer components (in some cases, vendors take out disk drives and other items), which reduces hardware costs. The stripped-down devices reduce pricing by anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars per machine, and that can add up to significant savings for large enterprises. These savings extend beyond the initial purchase, as well. Since thin client systems running fewer elements, they use less energy, saving enterprises 10–25 percent in energy-related costs.
In addition, the move to VDI boosts employee productivity. Rather than being tethered to their desks, workers can move freely from place to place and still have easy access to corporate resources. This “anytime, anywhere, any device” functionality lets them work from home if their children are sick or if the cable guy is coming.
Consistency Reduces Support
VDI also simplifies end-user device administration and reduces the need for support. Because there’s more consistency in device configuration, the IT staff works with a few desktop images rather than whatever an employee downloaded onto a system. Updates and patches are deployed more systematically since they’re implemented on a central server rather than on a variety of autonomous devices.
In addition to consistency, VDI promotes efficiency. In some companies, the only way to service a system is to have a technician touch it, which means walking to (or in some cases driving to) the end user’s location, running a check, and then fixing the desktop. With desktop virtualization, most fixes are completed via a few mouse clicks. This change alone, Gartner’s Wolf estimates, can reduce companies’ desktop support costs by 7–13 percent.
With fewer desktop elements in operation, support requirements drop. “We’re no longer chasing our tails,” says Adam Smith, IS administrator at Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital, located in remote Barrow, AK. The hospital’s six-person IT staff is responsible for keeping all of its systems up and running. Prior to launching its VDI project, the staff spent about 20 percent of its time updating and maintaining about 200 PCs. After making the switch, that statistic dropped to less than five percent.
I Feel Safe
Security is another lure. “As a healthcare provider, we need to make sure that patient information remains confidential,” Smith says. Security was one of the main reason why the hospital opted to replace its desktop PCs with NComputing’s virtual desktop systems in 2006. By centralizing control, the product made it easier to ensure that malware wasn’t running at any of the end points. Also, because the NComputing devices lack USB ports and CD/DVD drives, users are no longer able to download data and potentially walk out of the hospital with patient information.
Finally, desktop virtualization goes hand in hand with BYOD. “Once a company transitions to centrally managed desktops, it is better able to monitor and control changes in all end-user devices,” noted Lionel Lamy, research director in IDC’s European Software and Services Group. Such flexibility should help companies institute policies to control the variety of devices making their way into the workplace.
While offering many potential benefits, desktop virtualization does present companies with certain challenges, most centering on infrastructure. As the VDI approach shifts processing chores from desktops to central systems, capacity and performance become potential problems. Network bandwidth and latency will determine the quality of the end-user experience, which is especially important for employees who work with resource-intensive content, such as high-definition video. “With virtual desktops, network bandwidth is often a concern,” said Tony DeGonia, vice president and general manager at Exceptional Technology Solutions, LLC, a reseller as well as a user of Virtual Bridges’ Verdes desktop virtualization solutions. Companies need to be sure that their networks have sufficient bandwidth to support these applications.
Storage is another important consideration because virtualization shifts the burden from local hard drives to centralized devices. VDI can strain storage area networks (SANs). If tens, hundreds, or thousands of users arrive at work and all boot up their clients at the same time, the resulting “boot storm” could slow or possibly crash the storage network. Consequently, firms may need to boost both the capacity of their storage solutions as well as their SAN network connections. The end result may be a significant investment. “Desktop virtualization solutions can save companies money in the long run,” said IDC’s Lamy. “But they often require a significant upfront investment, which turns some companies off.”
Desktop virtualization systems have different design points. Vendors start by removing local storage, some eliminate USB drives, and others take out a local operating system. The number of amenities that suppliers eliminate varies, so making apples-to-apples pricing and feature comparisons can be difficult.
That App Won’t Run on This System
VDI can also cause problems at the application level. Because thin clients lack the features found in PCs, they can’t always run every application. When the technology first emerged, companies found it difficult to support all of their daily business applications. As it’s matured, most of the typical productivity applications (spreadsheets, word processing, email, etc.) have been tweaked to run on virtual desktops. However, multimedia continues to be an issue; some of these systems don’t play well with Flash and related tools and simply won’t run applications that require them.
In addition, IT departments need to proactively manage deployment. To achieve potential operational and support desk savings, companies need to limit the number of images available to users. For example, a company might maintain a standard desktop image for office workers, a .NET developer image, and a Java developer image. The idea is to have as few images as possible running rather than maintaining distinct images for each individual user. If companies don’t control their images, increased support costs will offset VDI’s potential support savings.
Support desks will also need to fine-tune their skill sets. Because support staffs won’t be fielding as many calls dealing with desktop applications, they’ll need to become experts at troubleshooting back-end issues. They’ll need to know how to tinker with various virtualization tools, and they’ll need to know more about things like network and SAN bottlenecks and less about patching and updating desktop systems.
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Desktop virtualization took time to gel. Early products offered limited functionality, which slowed adoption; as vendors and supplies have made progress, VDI has gained more supporters. However, the number of companies using these systems is still relatively small: Gartner’s Wolf estimates that VDI represents about three percent of all desktops, with the potential to reach double digits in a few years. In sum, this approach is becoming more popular, but at least in the short term, if you provide support, you should expect to continue to receive most of your calls from desktop and laptop users.
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer specializing in IT support issues. He is based in Sudbury, MA, and can be reached at