Virtual desktops set to come into their own in 2010

By Calvin Hsu*
Wednesday, 16 December, 2009

It's understandable for IT to get excited about VDI, the replacement of physical desktops with remotely accessed, virtualised versions hosted in the data centre. Early VDI initiatives have tended to focus on VDI's ability to address IT and corporate priorities such as improved efficiency, security, business continuity and cost savings. But this emphasis can leave users wondering what's in it for them - and rightly so. If the resulting performance fails to meet their needs, or unfamiliar environments undermine their productivity, is the organisation really better off?

In reality, of course, VDI can mean considerable benefits for users, from greater flexibility, to enhanced productivity, to more responsive IT support. If you go about it the right way, you can deliver an experience that's not only just as good as a physical desktop, but even better, with users feeling upgraded - not downgraded.

Making VDI just as good as physical desktops

The first step of a successful VDI initiative is to make sure that users can still do everything they've always done at least as well as before, and that the transition proceeds as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. It's a good idea to begin with simple use cases that allow you to get comfortable with the basics of VDI before moving on to more challenging areas. Line-of-business personnel and operational roles like HR, accounting and customer service offer a good starting point, with relatively standard, text-based productivity applications and predictable tasks. Latency and bandwidth are rarely a factor in performance, and such users are unlikely to need more advanced applications or configurations.

As more applications move to the web, employees who do much of their work online become another promising VDI use case. Browser bookmarks, saved passwords, history, cookies and other configurations can easily follow users wherever they log in, regardless of device.

Personnel in areas like marketing, training and data visualisation who rely on 3-D graphics, rich media and image-intensive content represent a more challenging use case. For these users, it's essential to deliver a truly high-definition experience within the context of your existing bandwidth and latency; otherwise, stalled streams, long load times and imprecise scrolling can make VDI and rich content seem mutually exclusive. The right technology will leverage the available resources effectively to serve any type of content, even in high-latency, low-bandwidth environments. This technology will automatically detect the underlying capabilities in the data centre, network and end-user device, and dynamically allocate the workload across the end-to-end delivery system accordingly.

While there are technologies that attempt to address these rich-media challenges from one location - for example, by brute-force heavy compression techniques in the data centre - these come at the expense of scalability, bandwidth and hardware infrastructure costs. Users don't have to understand how or why it works; all that matters to them is that they're getting consistently high-definition performance no matter where they work or what device they're using.

For all types of users, the preservation of desktop personalisation is essential for making a positive first impression of VDI. It's not enough just to provide access to the same applications; if the first thing they see when they log in to their new virtual desktop is a completely unfamiliar screen, their skepticism of VDI will seem justified. On the other hand, a VDI solution that enables you to migrate complete user profiles from the local PC to the virtual desktop allows users to resume work instantly in a familiar environment - from the background image to cookies, passwords, file and folder structures, icons, and shortcuts - for a truly seamless transition.

Making it even better

As with any virtualisation technology, the point of VDI isn't simply to replicate existing capabilities; the virtualised desktop should offer advantages beyond its physical counterpart.

One of the most obvious user benefits of VDI is the ability to walk up to any device in the company and log in to the same personalised desktop. As users travel from office to office, or switch to a loaner while their usual device is being serviced or replaced, they can always have the same consistent experience: the same data stored the same way, the same applications and configurations, the same personalisations.

The same holds true for personnel who occasionally need to finish work in the evening or on weekends, or work part of the time at home. Rather than having to remember which device holds the latest version of a document, or wishing they had access to the same applications at home as at work, users can log in securely to their virtual desktop and pick up exactly where they left off at the office. Similarly, mobile workers can use any computer at all - even a borrowed or rented one - to access their complete desktop environment, without the risk of leaving behind unsecured data.

VDI can also yield other benefits by allowing a broader range of options for user hardware - for example, thin clients. Traditionally thought of as low-end, kiosk-style devices designed to control the end user, today's thin clients offer better aesthetics as well as greater functionality, including laptop-like form factors, built-in 3G cards, rich graphics and the ability to attach peripherals. Users spend most of their work day looking into their desktop. Instead of replacing their familiar (if homely) PC with a utilitarian box and monitor, a workstation with a sleeker, more modern look allows them more personal choice for customising their work space. And if some of the resulting cost savings can be re-invested in dual monitors for users who need a lot of screen real estate, all the better.

Changing the game entirely

Beyond smarter-better-faster improvements, VDI also enables IT to fundamentally rethink the way user hardware is provisioned. An increasing number of organisations have embraced a 'bring-your-own-computer' (BYOC) program which - just as it sounds - allows people to use their own personal computer at the office. Just as pervasive connectivity and always-on communications have effaced traditional boundaries between work and personal life, BYOC makes it possible for users to take care of personal business while on breaks at the office or finish up work at home. With only one environment to personalise and consistent access to both sets of data and applications, from any location, users become more efficient and productive in everything they do, business and personal alike.

*Calvin Hsu is the Director, XenDesktop, Citrix Systems.

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