One topic receiving an ever-increasing amount of attention these days is desktop virtualization – aka virtual desktop infrastructure or VDI.  With promises of lower overall costs, improved efficiency and enhanced security, what’s not to love?  Of course, vendor promises sometimes don’t become reality.  We are beginning our own evaluation of VDI technology at Westminster College.  I’ll use this post to share my initial thoughts and to describe why we’re considering this option.  Do note that there are some broad generalizations below, but they suffice.  This post, and my post from today in the Servers and Storage blog here at TechRepublic are related.

Breaking the cycle

In my opinion, the desktop upgrade cycle is frustrating at best.  Sure, although many people in their jobs continue to do more and more with their desktop technology, others are doing the exact same thing they’ve done for 15 years.  For example, accounting and human resources functions haven’t changed much over time.  Although people in these positions do make creative use of technology, in many cases, the technology they use doesn’t always need to be the latest and greatest.  Their computers, however, do need to be periodically refreshed as they age and as productivity applications get upgraded.  Of course, there are always those users that require more hardware and a shorter refresh cycle.  These folks may need applications that require a bit more horsepower or newer features.

Regardless of the user or the refresh cycle need, without good automation tools and processes, upgrading a user’s computer can be a disruptive ordeal.  Applications need to be inventoried to make sure they get on the new system.  Documents and customizations need to be carried to the new system.  You get the idea.

A VDI solution can help to mitigate the desktop upgrade cycle by providing users with a client computer that doesn’t change very often.  The user connects to a VDI host and is presented with a completely clean desktop on each login, although some customization can be allowed.  When more horsepower is needed, IT can add more servers to the VDI host pool and have users connect to servers with appropriate loads.

Better management

Desktop management tools, including the use of Group Policy, have made managing the desktop a far cry from the days of personally visiting each desktop computer to install software or perform maintenance.  However, managing the desktop is still an exercise and requires a lot of time and planning, especially when getting ready to roll out a major change, such as an update to the Microsoft Office suite.  For each desktop and software combination, IT needs to run extensive tests to make sure that compatibility isn’t an issue, for example.  Although some solutions, such as Citrix and Terminal Services, were devised to make this an easier endeavor, those solutions have their own problems, such as applications that don’t play nice together.

The beauty of VDI is that every user gets a complete desktop environment without the problems that can be introduced in a Terminal Services or Citrix environment.  For some thoughts on Terminal Services vs. VDI, take a look at this week’s Servers and Storage blog.  In theory, this means no more registry aging creating system slowdowns.  Depending on the VDI solution, it can also mean much simpler testing.  A single application installation on a VDI host can provide that application to all users simultaneously.  This can mean much simpler testing, too, since you have only a single host image to worry about testing.

Enhanced security

In many instances and, again, depending on the VDI solution, VDI can have some security benefits. For example, with VMware’s upcoming VMware View (their version 3 VDI solution), images can be checked out for mobile use.  This image is encrypted on the mobile device, making it less likely that a lost device will result in lost data.

Beginner’s analysis 

Will VDI result in lower costs?  Over time, I think it will, although the solution itself does require an up front investment.  There are also some technical challenges to overcome, such as the inadequacy of the Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP) to reasonably handle multimedia streams.  There are solutions on the market for just about any VDI challenge, though.  For the multimedia challenge, Wyse has developed their TCX product designed to make the multimedia in an RDP session more closely match the native experience.  VMware’s View product has Wyse TCX capability included in the product.

The first question to ask is this: What problem are you trying to solve?  In the case of Westminster College, we need a better way to handle overall desktop management.  Our current process is very manual and time intensive.  We need to invest in some kind of management solution, so looking at VDI at this time seems to make sense.

We’re meeting with VMware in a couple of weeks to continue an in depth conversation about VMware View, but will also be evaluating Virtuozzo Containers, Terminal Services/SoftGrid, and more.  I’ll keep you current on how things go for us.