Companies take bold steps into desktop virtualization

Mobility sparks a move toward desktop virtualization, as benefits begin to outweigh challenges and ROI battles.

At the new Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, the maxim "do no harm" extends beyond caregivers to members of the technology team, especially when they undertake a sweeping desktop virtualization project that could impact the daily routine of up to 9,000 clinicians.

"If we're going to take on technology change inside a critical care setting, and with systems that serve our sickest patients, we've got to have a well-thought-out plan for making sure it works and that there's backup," says Stephen Sears, director of cloud and virtualization services at the 1.6 million-square-foot hospital.

The sheer physical size of the new hospital meant clinicians would need to be more mobile and rely more heavily on wireless computing. In addition, caregivers were adopting a new clinical documentation system, and Sears knew that they would be spending much more time on desktops and mobile devices.

So the IT team proceeded cautiously with one of the largest desktop virtualization projects of its kind -- one that combined VMware's View desktop virtualization product, the hospital's identity management program, proximity card technology and single-sign-on capabilities. While the initial costs were comparable to the costs associated with implementation of full desktops, the improvements that the virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) promised to yield in clinicians' mobility and workflow -- and ultimately patient care -- solidified the project's business value.

"The level of enthusiasm around us giving them a portable desktop was kind of crazy. It felt like I was giving out stuff at an Oprah show," Sears recalls. When he first showed a group of child life specialists how they could take notebooks from session to session and interact with applications in the data center, "they were amazed," he says. "We were real heroes."

While desktop virtualization provides many benefits, until recently, it has also come with concerns about elusive ROI, scalability and storage headaches, desktop latency and slow adoption by skittish users. But today many companies are giving virtual desktops a try anyway as workers demand more mobility and IT departments seek easier desktop management.

Companies with successful VDI implementations have worked through the obstacles and report happy, more mobile and productive users, better security, fewer IT headaches related to maintenance and repairs, and minimal new expenses. What's more, many companies that move to virtual desktops already have virtualized server environments, meaning they have the storage, platforms and licenses necessary to make the VDI implementation fast and relatively inexpensive.

"I think they've gotten a little smarter about how they deploy desktop virtualization," says Dick Csaplar, an analyst at Boston-based Aberdeen Group. "They don't look at it as something that they spread evenly across the whole organization. I think they're much smarter at targeting user groups and use cases, and they're not looking at it as a panacea like server virtualization."

There are still challenges associated with desktop virtualization. In some cases, it's not initially cheaper than a full desktop PC environment. Moreover, virtual systems may require a lot of storage, and it's important to ensure that virtual systems don't put undue demands on IT resources at certain times. But those who have embraced desktop virtualization say the benefits outweigh the challenges.'Invaluable' Flexibility

"I think the flexibility of allowing [users] to decide where and how they do business is invaluable," says Michael Fergang, vice president and CIO at The Grange Mutual Casualty Group, which deployed about 150 virtual desktops in its training and IT quality assurance departments.

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