Mar 06 2008

Which Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Is Right For Your Organization?

Computer- and server-based desktop virtualization gain momentum.


Photo: Stephen Kennedy
Lee Abner of CIB Marine Information Services relies on VMware's VDI to outfit telecommuters with the applications they need.

At H Design Group, an architecture and animation firm based in Springfield, Mo., Dan Blincoe figures he’s giving end users the best of both worlds: new Apple Macintosh notebooks and desktops that run both Mac and Windows applications at the same time, without having to reboot.


Drafted to perform IT duties, Blincoe, the firm’s senior associate and creative director, spent too much time troubleshooting and updating two computing environments — Mac and Windows.

Last month, he decided to get rid of the PCs and switch the entire firm to Macs. But he faced one problem: The architects still needed a computer-aided design program available only for Windows.

Undaunted, Blincoe turned to Parallels desktop-virtualization software, which allows end users to run Mac and Windows applications side by side. There’s a small performance hit on the Mac OS when Windows is running, Blincoe says, but he’s configured more memory to compensate.

“It’s running smoothly,” says Blincoe. “Since we couldn’t abandon Windows altogether for a Mac-only system, this allows us to partition off Windows and use it more as a utility to help our work flow, rather than relying on it for all of our computing needs.”

Because of the success of server virtualization, desktop virtualization is gaining momentum. Desktop virtualization comes in two forms: One is computer-based, with a single PC running multiple operating systems simultaneously; the other, dubbed Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), is server-based, with desktop operating systems resident on a server. Virtualization software essentially carves up a computer or server into different “virtual machines” (VMs), with each VM running its own operating system and software as if it were a standalone computer. End users with a regular PC or thin-client device can access their desktops remotely through a Remote Display Protocol link.

Parallels and VMware offer products that address both types of desktop virtualization; Citrix Systems offers a server-based solution called XenDesktop.

Desktop Virtualization Benefits

Both approaches to desktop virtualization offer different advantages. Computer-based desktop virtualization allows companies to access business applications that run a different or older operating system — such as Linux, Mac or a different flavor of Windows — than the desktop or notebook operating system, explains Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf.

Computer-based desktop virtualization also benefits certain groups of end users, such as IT staffers who use multiple VMs to develop and test new applications, or sales people who must demonstrate products on different operating systems, Wolf says.

Desktop virtualization on the server doesn’t offer the immediate cost savings that server virtualization offers. It’s aimed at solving a different problem: the complexity of deploying, maintaining and securing computers, says IDC analyst Michael Rose.

Server-based desktop virtualization, or VDI, improves the security, manageability and maintenance of computers because everything, including hard-drive storage for each end user, is housed in the data center and can be centrally managed with software, Rose explains.

VDI also requires that end users have a constant network connection. If remote workers need computer access when they don’t have a network connection, this is not the right solution for them, he says.

Which of the following best characterizes your company’s adoption of desktop-virtualization applications?

• 60% We have no current plans to deploy.
• 11% We currently use desktop-virtualization tools.
• 4% We are in the process of implementing desktop-virtualization tools.
• 22% We are in the process of evaluating desktop-virtualization options.
• 3% Don’t know.

Source: 537 BizTech readers

Server-based virtual desktops also may require additional server capacity to house the virtual desktops, storage to house end-user hard-drive information, and possibly a network upgrade to ensure sufficient bandwidth, Wolf says.

Whether server-based virtual desktops are a better option for small businesses is debatable. In large companies, when lower help-desk costs from VDI are factored in, the price is about the same whether you deploy VDI or stick with regular PCs, Rose says.

“In smaller businesses with 250 machines or less, there’s value, but I’m not sure if the cost benefit is there today,” he says. “It really becomes a powerful story with larger organizations where all the distributed computers are unwieldy to manage.”

The Right Fit for VDI

VDI works particularly well in certain small-business situations, such as a call center or a company that needs to set up a new remote office quickly. Take CIB Marine BancShares, for example: After successfully virtualizing its production servers, achieving significant cost-savings and reducing management overhead, CIB Marine BancShares decided to try virtualizing desktops, says Lee Abner, director of technology at CIB Marine Information Services in Bloomington, Ill.

The IT arm of a bank with 24 branches across the country, Abner’s group serves many remote end users. During the past year, he discovered that VMware’s VDI could help in deploying custom desktops for employees who telecommute or travel from one office to another with specific application needs, such as mortgage specialists or a night staffer who uploads the day’s transactions to the Federal Reserve System.

To date, CIB Marine BancShares has built 17 VMs for the IT staff and for telecommuters. Employees working from their home computers can connect through a company Web portal, authenticate through a Citrix ICA (Independent Computer Architecture) connection, then double-click on their virtual machine to launch their desktop. The Windows VM runs on the home computer or branch computer as if it’s the local operating system, allowing users to access their e-mail and all the applications they need.

Mouse clicks and keystrokes are sent through the remote connection to the server, which sends a view of the screen back to the user. The traffic is so minuscule that Abner sees no slowdown in performance. In fact, because all the processing occurs on the server, downloading a large e-mail attachment is faster over VDI than if a remote user tried to download that same file onto a notebook computer, he says.

“It works really well. You don’t even know it’s not your local desktop,” says Abner, who uses a VM on days he telecommutes or needs to troubleshoot during off-hours.

Using the VMs for teleworkers is cheaper than purchasing actual computers, Abner says. With the VMs centralized in the data center, it’s also much easier and cheaper to troubleshoot, he says. Users, for example, don’t have to ship the computers for repairs. Another benefit is disaster recovery: VMware’s software can create regular “snapshots” or backup copies of the virtual machine. So, if Abner is applying a patch or testing software and it crashes the VM, he can revert to an earlier copy of the VM in two minutes, he says. In the past, it would take 40 minutes to rebuild a machine.

Abner doesn’t plan to replace everyone’s desktop with a VM because it would be too costly. “It’s about finding the right fit for VDI,” he says.

IT Takeaway

The Digi ConnectPort WAN VPN HSDPA router provides Internet connectivity, TCP/IP network functions and VPN back to the home office. If you’re evaluating one, consider these points:

• Desktop virtualization is the latest effort to simplify PC management, analysts say.
• Server-based desktop virtualization is a form of thin-client or server-based computing.
• Besides desktop virtualization, tech companies have produced other new ways to ease PC management in recent years, such as blade PCs, which are individual computers housed in a data center, and “application virtualization” software, which is similar to desktop virtualization but provides only access to applications and not a full desktop.
• In a recent report, Forrester Research analyst Natalie Lambert says desktop and application virtualization are not one-size-fits-all technologies. Instead, companies will deploy a range of technologies, not just one, to meet their needs.