Dec 04 2008

Is Remote Desktop Virtualization Right for You?

Learn about the two types of remote desktop virtualization and the benefits and drawbacks of the technology.

Yuma County, Ariz., has long been a proponent of virtualization. Every production server we’ve installed over the past two years has been virtualized. Given our fondness for virtual technology, we began to explore remote desktop virtualization with great interest.

Virtualized desktops will play a significant role in our future IT strategy. Over the next five years, we hope to have approximately half of all Yuma County desktops running as virtual images. We recently piloted VMware's Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) technology with thin clients and various legacy PCs.

It’s important to define remote desktop virtualization before delving into the technology. Essentially, it’s PC desktop software running on a remote server that is accessible to multiple users simultaneously. There are two types of technology; the differences are subtle, but important.

The first is server-based computing, which is a server running one copy of a multiuser operating system. This allows multiple users to connect to the single operating system and run software on the server that would normally be on the desktop. Citrix XenApp and Microsoft's Terminal Server are two examples.

The second is more like server virtualization, with which we are all familiar. Most people refer to this type as Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, a term coined by VMware. VDI allows a server to host multiple copies of a desktop operating system. When a user runs a piece of software, he runs a copy of the desktop operating system, rather than share the OS as he would with server-based computing. VMware VDI and Parallels Server are examples of this model.

Blade PCs should also be mentioned. Many manufacturers tout blades as a form of remote desktop virtualization. With all due respect, that’s simply incorrect. A blade PC is nothing more than a standard desktop with a remote connection to the keyboard, mouse and monitor. Blade PCs do offer many good applications, but they’re not an example of remote desktop virtualization.

Remote desktop virtualization is hot because it offers many benefits. Consider virtualizing the desktops in your organization if you want to do any of the following:

  • Extend client hardware life: Because the processing takes place on the server, the device you use to connect to it becomes much less important. Old PCs or thin-client devices will work just fine.
  • Strengthen security: With virtualized desktops, it becomes a relatively simple matter to eliminate thumb drives, CDs and DVDs as points of data loss or malware injection.
  • Decrease time to deploy clients: Because the “desktop PC” exists only as a software image, deploying a new client requires a fraction of the time needed for a traditional desktop deployment.
  • Improve remote access: All virtualized PCs are accessible via a TCP/IP network, so you can easily extend access to an employee's home if desired.
  • Improve continuity of operations: There are many new options for continuity of operations planning once the type and physical location of the user's desktop is no longer an issue. Assuming you have backups of all the virtual desktop images, it becomes a fairly simple matter to restore your users’ access to their own PCs.
  • Save money: Desktop virtualization typically cuts costs, but the initial investment tends to consume much of the cost savings in the first year or so.

That said, there are also several drawbacks to desktop virtualization. Here are a few of the biggest challenges you might face:

  • It requires constant network connectivity: If your internal network is not reliable, don’t even consider desktop virtualization. Without a reliable network, a desktop virtualization project will fail.
  • It can diminish user satisfaction: “We're just going back to mainframes,” is a cry you may hear. If your users view your desktop virtualization project as primarily taking things away from them or going backwards in terms of technology, it faces a handicap from the very beginning.
  • It doesn’t allow for multimedia: Speaking of taking things away from users, one of the places users may feel withdrawal most acutely is in the area of multimedia. While some thin-client manufacturers are making strides in this area, we've found that it's still not as good as a dedicated local PC. Also, thin clients typically don't have the ability to play DVDs or CDs. Maybe these items aren't required for their jobs, but your users will be unhappy if they are used to having the capability.
  • It requires new skills of PC technicians: While desktop virtualization greatly simplifies desktop support, PC administrators who are accustomed to hands-on work will need to adjust to the idea that the hardware is now almost irrelevant. Their jobs get easier and more efficient, but the type of work will change.

Yuma County’s desktop virtualization plans include a mix of server-based computing and virtual desktop interfaces. But certain desktops, such as those used for video editing or other graphics or multimedia-intensive tasks, will likely never be virtualized in our organization.

If you’re considering desktop virtualization, find the blend that works best in your particular environment.