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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Build the business case and ROI

Expected savings on PC refreshes may be outweighed by the considerable investment you'll need to make to create a consolidated back-end infrastructure -- processing, network, storage -- to replicate what your users were doing on their local PCs. And while there are hard-dollar savings to be had from a VDI initiative, it very much depends on your current client and back-end infrastructure, whether you're up for a PC refresh anyway, and how well you manage the PC infrastructure you already have.

Even in applications where client virtualization technologies make sense, project scale can affect ROI. "Between 100 and 200 desktops is where you start seeing some of the savings," says Mayers.

Costs to implement a virtualized client environment can vary widely, depending on current infrastructure. But for an organization that already has an established virtual server environment and the infrastructure in place to support it, expect hosted desktop virtualization deployment costs to fall somewhere in the ballpark of $800 to $1,600 per desktop, Mayers says. That will vary, he cautions, based on your actual virtual desktop configuration, the server and storage systems used, and the tools chosen for antivirus, personalization management, backup and recovery, and other management tools.

Other consultants say that costs vary so widely that they couldn't even hazard a guess.

One thing almost everyone agrees on: Vendor ROI claims are grossly inflated. "Expect a three-year ROI at best," Wolf says. But there are real benefits -- and cost savings -- around the total cost of ownership for virtualized desktops versus that for full-on PCs. These savings come from IT process improvements and filling strategic needs ranging from security and compliance to bring-your-own-computer initiatives.

Michael Kamer, manager of technology integration services at Saint Luke's Health System, says sales people pushed the idea that compared with the cost of buying new PCs, he could achieve operational savings of 40% with desktop virtualization, using a design built around XenDesktop. His own numbers, double-checked by a consultant, came in at about 9%. "So far, that has proved to be fairly accurate," he says.

"The ROI just wasn't there," says Porter at Touchstone. For his organization, the benefits of its VMware View pilot were about better security, faster provisioning of new users, and user self-service. "You've got to find those soft costs," he says.

"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."

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