The virtual desktop

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7 July 2010 | 0

The IT industry has been asserting firmly for several years now that virtualisation is now mainstream. But in fact it is already clear that the reassurance is unnecessary. Virtualisation is now quite simply the way we do computing. In theory, like many other forward steps and paradigm shifts in technology, many organisations and users have yet to catch up. But starting from scratch today very few would design the systems for a new business in any other way.

There is also a much more mature attitude to virtualisation in ICT generally, a recognition that the concept no longer needs evangelising, but that there are both challenges and wrinkles to deal with. Server consolidation, for example, is the usual first step and almost universally the primary driver for adoption. Reducing a physical server estate to a tenth or less of the total number of boxes is extremely attractive on cost grounds. When it offers greater manageability with better performance the deal seems almost a ‘no-brainer’.

The logical next step along the virtualisation road is the desktop and this year was hailed, somewhat prematurely, as ‘the Year of the Virtual Desktop’ by large sections of the IT industry, analysts and media internationally. VMware as probably the leading global vendor of virtualisation systems can certainly be regarded as a bellwether of where the market herd is heading. “Our best indicator is that our pre-sales engineers are currently spending about 30% of their time on desktop virtualisation and related matters,” says Dave Wright, VMware vice president of technical services in EMEA. “On the other hand, until recently we had to spend a lot of our time explaining virtualisation and what it can deliver for the organisation. Today we seldom have to do that, because server virtualisation has educated and convinced the market.”

The inevitable
He sees the virtual desktop as the inevitable next step, based in large measure on the now proven advantages of virtualisation at server level in terms of business continuity, enabling higher levels of security and future proofing. “Certainly, there are concerns and even worries about moving to the virtual desktop but they are all capable of being met at this stage. IT managers see that once it is deployed they can have more control, more security. There are also concerns about key enterprise applications but in fact today any app can be accessed through a virtual desktop. Encapsulation technology means an application can be deployed to a user as a virtual instance. It is never actually installed on the device. So it is both more controlled and more secure.”

 

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Wright describes a vision of the virtual desktop which can be delivered in various ways but has two basic elements. Each user needs no more than a device or access to a device, Internet connection and the means of authentication. Once logged on, all desktop applications and data are available exactly as at the end of the last session. But all applications and data are actually held and managed centrally. “This is like thin client computing but even thinner. In essence, the computing resource is provided as a managed service to each user. In this context we can see that the service might be managed by the organisation itself or in fact by a third party. Now the virtual desktop vision can be extend out to XaaS, anything as a service, with multiple layers of software or the desktop or even infrastructure as a service.”

Mixed resources
As the doyen of thin client computing, Citrix has effectively been enabling the virtual desktop for a long time. “But it’s all more strategic today and the virtual desktop concept has been embraced by large organisations for key business objectives like flexibility and corporate agility,” says Harry Labana, Citrix CTO for desktop virtualisation. “Virtualisation at server level has led to great cost and efficiency gains in server consolidation and more recently data centre consolidation for global organisations. In parallel with this, the centralisation of data and applications if offering a new architecture that is more efficient, more secure and in many respects easier to manage. With the virtual desktop the organisation is effectively able to offer the personal desktop and its applications as an on-demand service. In some large organisations the model is mature enough to be able to mix its own resources with third party services.”

Acknowledging that we have not yet reached the level of virtual technology where absolutely everything we might wish can be run remotely, Labana says we can look at it from the other direction and ask “Why do so many things still have to be installed and run locally?” He points to the example of the many new mobile devices and form factors. The thousands of possible applications are being increasingly successful precisely because they can be hosted and delivered remotely. “We are seeing consumerisation as a big driving force, showing how IT can get outside the particular organisation and be both more friendly and more powerful.”

“There are new ways of using consumer and business software, including off-line mode as well as online, that are based on paying as we use,” Labana says. “Paying for simply owning it is like line rental in telecoms: why?” There are many advantages to virtual computing architecture that are just now beginning to be recognised as of great value as virtualisation in its many forms becomes ubiquitous. “Business today tries very hard to be agile but one of the common practical challenges is that with mergers, acquisitions and diversification it takes time to get all of the business activities on-board the enterprise systems. With a virtual desktop infrastructure, that is greatly simplified.” It is also, he adds, becoming easier to divest and sell on a line of business because its systems are almost literally portable.

Flexible workforce
Microsoft prefers to talk about the optimised desktop, of which virtualisation is, in the end, just one important part, according to Ronnie Dockery, Windows Client manager in Microsoft Ireland. “With a workforce that wants to work anywhere, anytime it is clear that applications are an essential enabler to business rather than some kind of unavoidable cost. You could think of virtual teams, getting tenders or other market responses in quickly, responding to market change and so on. But all of that flexibility has brought challenges to management and it would be easy to point to some dramatic examples of lost laptops and data or other security breaches. In that overall context, the virtual desktop offers a key advantage because for the most part the data is not even on the device. There is literally nothing to lose except the device itself.”

Central management of the entire computing environment is the key, Dockery says. “The user profiles and permissions and the virtualised applications are all managed and configured through System Center or similar central consoles. So there is always just one version of your applications, upgraded and patched and always consistent. In fact all of the nuances are much easier to control and deploy.”

There are many variations of possible architecture, he explains, which could range from cloud services such as Microsoft’s BPOS [Business Productivity Online Suite] and Azur through AppV or other tools, to deliver virtualised applications within the enterprise to thin client delivery using Citrix, for example. “That is part of why we use the term optimised desktop. There really is no ‘one size fits all’ virtual desktop solution but there are ways to deliver it and its advantages in almost any organisation. There are no big barriers to adoption left, really, and even heavyweight and specialised legacy applications can be delivered to users through some form of virtual desktop. I’m thinking of something like medical imaging, notoriously data intensive, yet now being delivered easily to remote users as a virtual instance.”

By and large Dockery sees organisations adopting the virtual desktop by degrees and implementing pilot and test projects. “It does not have to be a Big Bang nor do all of your users have to have all of their functionality all of the time. But it is hard to argue against the virtual desktop and what it offers by way of secure central management and standardisation combined with enormous flexibility as the optimum way of the future in delivering applications and functionality to users in an organisation.”

Robust security
Virtualisation generally is being driven by the very big savings in the data centre and the proven business benefits of security with flexibility and control of all aspects of risk management. “At the top end, server consolidation has been followed by data centre consolidation,” says Mark McKeon, head of Enterprise Servers, Storage and Networks in HP Ireland. “We have reduced our data centres globally from 30 to just three. Clearly the next logical step is to distribute the data and application functionality to users. Running the desktop infrastructure out of the data centre as a managed service passes on the improved economics of the data centre as well as giving central control and a valuable commonality of capability to each community of users such as the staff of an organisation. It maintains the robustness of security, including business continuity, while simplifying the distribution of the ICT that people need.”

McKeon sees the landscape between cloud computing, private clouds and virtual desktop architecture, thin client and any other architectures as a continuum with a variety of individually chosen options. “Virtual desktop computing and its variations can serve consumers, gamers and geeks as well as it can answer the business needs of workers in an organisation. In the organisation the emphasis shifts to the centre and in fact we are already seeing HP and others rolling out standard, low cost business machines to serve the changed market. We see ourselves today involved with the development of servers and data storage and the automation of computing resources. From that we can partner with global SaaS providers, large service organisations providing managed ICT and of course the individual enterprise managing its next generation of technology.”

Horses and courses
An interesting and almost sceptical view of the virtual desktop in the Irish market today comes from Frazer Furlong, general sales manager of Ergo IT infrastructure. “It’s fair to say we are not where we were told we were going to be. We have been seeing lots of desktop projects and companies have been looking into desktop virtualisation. But they have opted for traditional desktop hardware refresh and the conclusion has to be that they find that easier. ‘Buy the up to date kit and lash it in there, we’ve done it before and we know how it works.’ Yet at the same time the benefits of server consolidation through virtualisation are well understood and accepted.”

Pointing to some of the factors that he feels are inhibiting adoption, Furlong says unfamiliarity and perceived complexity are still genuine issues. “End user productivity is still entirely network based for many companies and certain applications can be difficult to run through a virtual desktop. There is also the fact that good consultancy help costs money and anyone looking into it soon finds there may be software licensing issues. The costs of running and supporting a virtual desktop infrastructure should be much lower, as well as the many technical and business benefits. But the truth is that the up-front cost savings are just not significant enough to motivate many organisations.”

He sees the adoption of VDI gaining some more momentum into 2011, with elements like a general move to Windows 7 and Office 2010 helping it along, plus a rising demand for unified communications. “There has been a lack of hardware refresh in recent years, for obvious reasons, so to some extent there is pent-up demand that will give another push. In fact the economics of moving to the virtual desktop using hardware the business already owns will add a lot to the economic benefits as the concept itself becomes more mainstream and accepted.”

Not for all
Every organisation should look at virtual desktop architecture, says Rowan O’Donoghue, director of innovation and development in Origina Ireland. “It is by no means a single solution and there are types of organisation, maybe about 30%, where it would not make that much sense at this time. The virtual desktop is very attractive as a way of giving users excellent functionality with greater ease of management and central control than traditional infrastructure. But organisations are just becoming aware that it can bring the need for a different skills set in the data centre, for example with higher level of VMware knowledge. A stronger governance model is also needed.”

He echoes the point about software licensing, suggesting that many enterprises do not really know what they have bought and the concurrent users licensing model is not fully understood. “Once you start to look at the detail from a virtualisation perspective licensing is a murky minefield. “But the real snag remains that the capital costs are not nearly as attractive as market hype has suggested. We have done analyses for clients and the general finding has been that a virtual desktop infrastructure would only be about 20% less than a traditional technology refresh.”

Desktop as a service
On the other hand, O’Donoghue believes that virtual desktop infrastructure has strongly introduced managed desktops as a service to the market. “We have a multi-site European client running service contact centres, with VDI running on a private cloud architecture. They wanted to reduce their support costs, take away the mundane stuff and concentrate on core business and the more specialist technical challenges. So we bought their VDI infrastructure from them and sell it back as a managed service on a fee per user per month basis. Since they don’t much care exactly how it works, we have introduced Linux on the devices to just give a basic boot OS to take them into the VDI environment.”

That begins to seem like an almost perfect example of how the virtual desktop will change the shape of computing. With everything run centrally, as a service or by the organisation, the edge device begins to be almost irrelevant. It can be corporate, cheap and cheerful or the latest cool gizmo.

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