Hosting Virtual Desktops: Tips for a Successful Outcome

If you've already virtualized the servers in your data center, desktop virtualization may seem like the next logical step. But businesses are finding that the benefits of hosted virtual desktop technologies are more nuanced. The advantages may be harder to quantify and harder to justify based purely on traditional ROI calculations.

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"Our biggest savings is on the staff who keep it running," he says. "Nothing is as frustrating as watching one of your guys walking around to machine after machine, fixing the same things. Virtualization cuts down on those issues."

But Starling had to overcome another limitation before moving forward. "In places like Kurdistan, bandwidth is very expensive," he says. To optimize bandwidth, Starling brought in a third-party tool, Veloxum for Citrix, to maximize the performance over the networks and on the back-end servers.

Starling also launched a desktop virtualization testbed using XenDesktop, which he'd like to use in the Dubai headquarters to eliminate desktops in favor of thin clients. But both desktop and application virtualization technologies face cultural resistance. "We're faced with questions such as, where is the server, and why isn't it next door to me?"

Users also tend to resist the idea of a plain vanilla desktop, so Starling is considering adding personalization to the nonpersistent virtual desktops, which spin up from a common, golden image. "At the end of the day, our users want to be individuals," he says. "We can't deprive them of that."

Staff in some countries also resent the idea of being dictated to by people in another country. Virtualization is something that has to be sold, not forced. So Starling sells the benefits, such as how easy it is to get back up and working after a device failure or service interruption.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

"It's not cost savings I'm going after," says Whirlpool's Summers. "What's driving this goal is improved service." Because of aging PCs and notebook computers, multiple configurations and a mix of software versions, boot times were slow and trouble ticket volumes were high -- about 30% of all calls were attributed to desktop issues. The move to VDI has helped to address all of those problems, he says.

Rent-A-Center's Chanani estimates that costs for his project will be higher for the first three years due to back-end expenses, but he expects that to even out because client devices will last longer. Client virtualization, he says, will reduce costs and increase shareholder value, because customer data never leaves the premises.

ROI also depends on how well the existing environment is managed. If the business buys expensive PCs and laptops every three years but has Microsoft Software Assurance and wants thin clients to replace the PCs, "you can show one whopping ROI," says INX's Kaplan. On the other hand, he says, "if you're using Altiris or some other push product in a well-managed environment and it works well, moving to VDI isn't going to save a lot of money."

Ease from pilot to deployment

After you understand the business imperatives, it's time to figure out the right technology. Do you need desktop virtualization at all, or is application virtualization enough? Should you follow the persistent VDI model, in which every user has a dedicated virtual machine, or follow a nonpersistent model, in which virtual desktops are spun up as needed from a common, standardized set of disk images? Do you need to add personalization to those nonpersistent images, and if so, will the basics offered by Citrix, Microsoft or VMware do, or do you need more sophisticated tools?

The answer may be "all of the above." Different user profiles dictate different technologies. Bring the products in, test them against your needs and expectations, and do a pilot, Accenture's Slattery suggests.

Summer says Whirlpool's VMware View pilot went on for 12 months before IT started rolling it out to 18,000 employees. He advises taking your time on both the pilot and deployment. "We had problems with the software, with applications and the network," he says. Since working through those issues, Whirlpool has rolled out the VMware View Client to a few hundred desktops and will continue as client hardware is refreshed. "In 12 to 18 months, we'll have about 10,000 people on virtual desktops," he says.

The pilot will also set the stage for selling users on the project. "You want users who like new technology, who will tolerate [problems] and generate positive buzz," says Kaplan.

While the pilot will give you champions of the technology among the user base, that doesn't mean you should skimp on training, Kaplan says. "In a lot of IT departments, the user walks in and sees a thin terminal on their desk and that's their introduction to VDI. You'd better have a strategy to sell it to users and get them excited about it," he says. He suggests talking about features such as the ability to "roll back" a desktop after a failure, and the ability to interrupt a desktop session at work, go home, log back in and pick up where you left off.

Rent-A-Center did video training. "That was a big hit for us," Chanani says. But he underestimated the sense of security that people feel knowing that their Word documents and other data reside on a physical device that's in their possession. "That's more powerful than I imagined," he acknowledges. "We still haven't gotten over that yet, even though the virtual experience looks and feels just like a Windows desktop."

Ultimately, the key to success lies not just in making the business case, but in creating a "business pull" for the technology rather than an IT push, says Summers. He stresses increased productivity through features such as faster boot times, greater reliability, faster recovery times, increased security and the ability to have almost instant access to the virtual desktop from any location or any device with an Internet connection. "That's our whole strategy," he adds.

This story, "Hosting Virtual Desktops: Tips for a Successful Outcome" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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