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Virtual desktop technology has been available for more than a decade and has picked up interest of late, but there are still plenty of VDI challenges to overcome.
Fat desktop clients have never been easy for IT departments to manage. Virtual desktops move software from the end device -- usually a PC or a laptop -- to a server, so maintenance generally becomes easier.
For many years, businesses have spent a lot of time and money managing Microsoft Windows PCs and laptops. Downloading software, updating releases, blocking malware and keeping everything in sync have been onerous, time-consuming tasks for IT departments. Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) comes from vendors such as Citrix Systems Inc., Dell Inc., Microsoft, NComputing Inc., Virtual Bridges Inc. and VMWare Inc. and aim to simplify administration.
One customer, at least, has found that to be true. Educational Services of America (ESA) provides both alternative and special education programs to school districts throughout the U.S. Two years ago, the organization found it challenging to provide a consistent desktop experience for 12,000 students located in 23 states. "We found it difficult to ensure that students worked with the right software releases," said Alan Watson, executive vice president and CIO at ESA.
The business examined desktop virtualization vendors and narrowed its selection down to Citrix's XenDesktop and VMWare's VMView. "For us, the Citrix solution cost less," said Watson.
ESA is using the product to deliver courseware to students. Rather than touch thousands of desktop systems, the corporation updates the server software, and the change is automatically replicated to the other devices.
Traditionally, running multimedia capabilities on virtual desktops was problematic, but that is no longer always the case -- these systems have become more robust.
Security concerns in VDI environments
In the fall of 2011, Metro Health, which has 2,400 employees in the Grand Rapids, Mich., area, determined desktop virtualization would be a good way to support its electronic medical records initiative. However, the large, complex files flowing over its network were a concern. The company opted for VMWare's VMView because it supported the PC over IP protocol (PCoIP), which speeds up delivery of multimedia files. "We found that PCoIP ran three to four times faster than alternative protocols," said Aivars Apsite, technology strategist at Metro Health.
Security is another lure for virtual desktops. Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital, located in remote Barrow, Alaska, has a handful of employees responsible for ensuring that about 200 PCs remain updated, upgraded and, most importantly, secure. "As a health care provider, we need to make sure that patient information remains confidential," said Adam Smith, information systems administrator at Samuel Simmonds.
In 2006, Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital sought an alternative to desktop PCs and selected NComputing's virtual desktop system. Doing so helped Smith's team eliminate the threat of leaks from endpoint malware. Because the NComputing devices lack USB ports and CD and DVD drives, users can't download or take patient information out of the building.
Stripping out certain elements of PCs creates some positive ripple effects. Virtual desktops are less expensive than traditional desktop systems and the potential savings extend to energy use. Because virtual systems have fewer functioning components, less energy is consumed. While the savings will vary by configuration, costs are generally lowered by 10% to 30%.
But these systems have limitations, starting with how they are designed. The number of amenities that suppliers eliminate varies, so apples-to-apples pricing and feature comparisons are difficult. Vendors start by removing local storage: some eliminate USB drives; others take out the local hard drive. Systems that have removed all of those items are dubbed "zero clients," while those that retain flash memory only are called "thin clients."
These omitted parts affect customer experiences. The more items taken away, the less maintenance needed on the end system, but it also becomes more difficult for end devices to support PC functions. For example, running local Adobe Flash Player can be problematic.
In addition, enterprises need to make sure the IT infrastructure can support virtual desktop applications. Their design changes traditional system stress points. "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' VERDE desktop virtualization offering. Employees may arrive at work, boot up their clients simultaneously and flood the network.
Virtual desktops and storage
Physical storage is also on the list of VDI challenges. Desktop virtualization shifts the storage burden from local hard drives to centralized devices. Consequently, firms may need to boost the capacity of their storage hardware.
IT departments must balance desktop flexibility against reduced maintenance. The department has to create standard desktop profiles for various types of workers. For example, a .NET developer will have one desktop image and a company vice president another. Companies must limit the number of possible images or else they will spend all day creating and maintaining them.
Another potential obstacle is assembling an IT staff with the skills to run a virtualized environment. Some organizations try to use their existing staff without getting them trained. If enterprises do not have people with the right skill sets in place, support becomes challenging, to say the least.
In general, desktop virtualization systems have limited support for handheld smartphones and tablets. With businesses replacing PCs and laptops with these devices, vendors will need to improve mobile support.
Desktop virtualization took time to gel. The early products offered limited functionality, which slowed adoption. Suppliers have made progress in addressing PC and laptop limitations, but work still needs to be done with handheld devices. These products can work well in some scenarios but are not an IT panacea.
About the author
Paul Korzeniowski is a freelance writer who specializes in cloud computing and data center-related topics. He is based in Sudbury, Mass., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.