Hosting virtual desktops: Tips for a successful outcome

Be prepared for a long road; the technology requires a significant buildup of servers and other infrastructure, among other things

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Understand the basic value propositions

Client virtualization strategies are often built around three drivers, says Gartner analyst Chris Wolf:

  1. Security. Client virtualization lets companies meet compliance or regulatory requirements, since no applications or data reside on the local machine; everything is managed on the server side.
  2. Business continuity. If a client device fails, the user can log in elsewhere and pick up where she left off.
  3. Operational efficiencies. These include easier management of centralized resources, and the ability to provision new virtual desktops and deploy applications and updates faster. "If there's an issue, it's easy to whip up another virtual session instead of swapping out physical hardware," says Align's Mayers.
Michael Kamer
Double-check those ROI numbers, says Michael Kamer, manager of technology integration services at Saint Luke's Health System. For his virtualization implementation, estimates from sales people promised operational savings of 40% but the actual number was 9%, he says.

Mick Slattery, global lead of workplace enablement services for Accenture and Avanade, says that without another infrastructure move, it may be hard to justify the capital outlay required for VDI all by itself.

The Co-operative Group, the United Kingdom's largest retailer with food, pharmacy, travel and other interests, has so far moved 900 of its 19,000 employees onto Windows XP virtual desktops, and it plans to step those up to Windows 7. "It's the slickness of doing it I like," says technical architect Ian Cawson, comparing the XenDesktop VDI to his traditional software distribution tool, Altiris, for distributing massive updates across all 2,500 of Co-operative's locations. "Altiris would kill the network" in terms of bandwidth, he explains. "And we don't have to reimage." [See related story.]

The consumerization of the client is exactly what Saint Luke's Health System is addressing. The Kansas City, Mo., healthcare provider has a pilot under way that delivers a virtualized Windows 7 desktop to doctors on personal iPads that they bring to work. In this way, they can access clinical applications that provide patient information as they move from room to room. [See sidebar.]

In fact, IT can no longer ignore the increasing clamor of requests to provide access to corporate resources from smartphones, tablets and other consumer-owned devices. As the pressure to accommodate such devices continues to mount, Slattery sees client virtualization as an "interesting first step."

"It allows IT to maintain a level of control and security and still meet the users' needs," although, he says, "you do have some presentation issues" when deploying a virtual desktop or desktop application to a tablet or smartphone screen.

Desktop virtualization may be a good way to eliminate the need for laptop computers that travel between home and office, if users already have a PC or thin client in each location, says INX's Kaplan. "Virtualization follows them around," he says.

The retail chain Rent-A-Center, for example, recently launched a desktop virtualization pilot. KC Condit, senior director of information security and support, hopes to avoid having to give laptops to the 425 store managers who travel to as many as eight stores each week. Instead, he hopes to equip those managers with a hosted virtual desktop that's accessible from a home computer or from a thin client in any store. [See sidebar.]

Rent-A-Center's virtualization pilot, based on XenDesktop, could become a secure access method for hundreds of contractors, temps and business partners -- and it may set the stage for the company's ultimate goal: getting out of the business of issuing and supporting client hardware. "This paves the way for a bring-your-own-computer model, which is what I want for contractors this year and employees next," says Jai Chanani, who as senior director of technology services and architecture at Rent-A-Center also worked on the networking and data center infrastructure designs for the project.

Chanani isn't the only one with that vision. "We're enabling the business to let people use their own devices," as long as Citrix has a Receiver client for it, says Cawson at The Co-operative Group. "We will allow BYOC this year for iPads," he says, just as soon as Citrix releases Version 13 of its Receiver client. Support for other devices will follow.

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