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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Going green

Some organizations are looking for green benefits. For example, Align has a large financial services customer that uses high-performance PCs for real-time trading. The client is considering replacing a second, general-purpose PC on each desk with a virtual desktop and thin client to save both space and power. "It's not just the power on the trading floor, but also the heat associated with those PCs," Mayers says.

KC Condit
KC Condit, senior director of information security and support at Rent-A-Center, says he's hoping virtualization will help him avoid the costs of new laptops for hundreds of store managers.

The Co-operative Group chose thin clients instead of full-fledged PCs for 90% of the desktops in its new head offices, which come online in 2012. It expects to reduce annual desktop maintenance costs by about $2.4 million and energy costs by about $800,000.

Some retail customers are replacing aging Windows XP-based point-of-sale registers with virtual desktops and thin clients. "We hook up a credit card machine and scanner and have them controlled by corporate without putting any PCs in store locations," Align's Mayers says.

Just make sure the equipment you have is supported by the virtualization vendor. Steven Porter, CIO at Touchstone Behavioral Health, uncovered just this issue during a recent pilot with VMware View. [See sidebar.] Staff in the field had USB-powered signature pads attached to their laptops -- and the VMware client mistook this device for a mouse. Although the manufacturer of the signature pad has a workaround, Porter says it's clunky.

"I don't think I could get my end users to use it," he says. "That was a deal-breaker."

Once you've figured out the appropriate use cases, INX's Kaplan recommends creating a project definition document that clearly states the business reasons behind the project, as well as the benefits and expected ROI. "When you hit the inevitable hurdles -- like when the assistant to the vice president breaks down because he can't print and wants to get rid of this VDI stuff -- you'll have this touchstone you can go back to."

Hosting virtual desktops is about separating the physical personal computing device from the Windows operating system and applications, which normally run on top of it, and moving it into the data center, where it can be more easily managed. Vendors offer several variations on this theme.

Understand the technology options

The most popular technology today for desktop virtualization is VDI. This is exemplified by VMware View, in which instances of Windows XP or Windows 7 run within virtual machines that are separated from the underlying physical server host. This separation happens by way of a layer of software, such as the VMware vSphere Hypervisor. That software lets each virtual PC think it has exclusive access to the hardware while serving as the traffic cop for all requests to the shared hardware underneath it.

Of course, you can define desktop virtualization more broadly -- as a way to remove the Windows desktop environment from the physical PC and host it in the data center. This idea has actually been around since Microsoft introduced Terminal Services (now Remote Desktop Services) with Windows NT 4.0 back in 1996.

This software served up hosted Windows applications within terminal sessions, with Windows Server functioning as the underlying multiuser operating system. Citrix has extended that approach to include the presentation of a simulated Windows desktop operating system environment using RDS/Windows Server.

In both cases, the connection methodology is similar: A physical client (either a thin client or personal computer running special client software) exchanges keystroke, mouse and display information with a simulated Windows desktop running in a terminal session, or a Windows virtual machine residing on a back-end host.

The technology has improved since those early days of server-based computing. Today the performance is faster than ever, the user's virtual desktop can include whatever level of personalization that company policies allow, and in the RDS model, users can work within a complete virtual desktop environment rather than pick from a slim menu of virtualized applications.

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