What IS a virtual desktop? What is VDI? Why does this technology exist? Why do companies buy this stuff? What problems does VDI solve? What is in it for the End User?
I have heard and answered these questions and many more related to virtual desktops for a very long time, so I though a short post just covering the high points would be good to have handy.
Whatis.com will tell you VDI is:
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is the practice of hosting a desktop operating system within a virtual machine (VM) running on a centralized server. VDI is a variation on the client/server computing model, sometimes referred to as server-based computing.
Citrix.com will tell you VDI is:
“Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, or VDI, refers to the process of running a user desktop inside a virtual machine that lives on a server in the datacenter.”
My Plain English version of what VDI is:
A VDI (virtual desktop) is TYPICALLY another name for a desktop computer that is running in the data center, not under your desk. I say "typically" because there are other permutations that are called "Virtual Desktops" but are not in the strict parlance of technical types.
Think about it like this:
If we took the computer under your desk (the one connected to your monitors, keyboard and mouse), all of your applications, etc. and “virtualized” it, which is another way of saying “converted into a file” and copied that file, representing your computer, with every other employee’s files (their computers) to the datacenter on one or more really powerful computers we call servers, and let you use that same mouse, monitor, keyboard setup to work from this new desktop, that would be, at a high level, a virtual desktop.
Why would anybody want to do this?
A few reasons.PC Support Cost. PC’s are relatively inexpensive to buy, but having all these little boxes scattered all over the office can cost a lot more to support. $2,500 per year or more, each, according to Gartner and other analysts who keep an eye on this stuff.
Data Security. When PC’s are virtualized, all of the data is stored in the datacenter, on equipment that gets backed up every night. Odds are that PC under your desk does not get backed up consistently, making it more prone to data loss when the hard drive quits.
If you deal with sensitive data on your computer and your computer walks away one day, the loss could be damaging to the business and depending on your industry (Healthcare and Financial Services most notably) there can be some hefty penalties for that lost data. Keeping it safe in the datacenter, where you can access it at will to get your work done, but it is still keep it protected, sometimes just makes good sense.
PC’s are, well, PC’s, that is all they will ever be. It can’t morph into a tablet, laptop, Chromebook, or smartphone when the need arises. The PC at or under your desk will be there for, on average, 3 to 5 years before it gets replaced by, wait for it…. Yes, another PC. For some end users, sitting at their desk all day doing their work is fine, for others, however, it would be much more efficient if their computers could go with them everywhere.
You might be saying to yourself “That is why we have these crazy things called laptops, just for this problem” and you would be right, but we still have problem number one in that laptops cost at least as much to support as PCs, don’t typically last as long and have a higher initial price. We have that second problem of security again in that data on a portable computer is still probably not getting backed up and is now at greater risk of being lost or stolen as it travels around the free world with you.
What is the benefit for the end user, me?
Work can come to you, you don’t necessarily have to go to work. Work from anywhere it makes sense. With access to the Internet and Wi-Fi being more and more prolific, virtual desktops (VDI) allow you to access your computer (the one we turned into a file and put in the datacenter) from anywhere you have access to the Internet. Would it make more sense to work at a client location for a day? Does it make sense for you to work from home two days a week? How about on the weekends from your couch?
Work from any device you choose. Work on a computer at the office, work on a laptop in the field, work from a tablet on your couch, your Mac, or your smartphone. Use the device appropriate to the situation and preference to get work done.
Get a New PC every day. That computer under your desk gets slower over time, needs to cleaned up, etc. Virtual desktops can be new every day, with your personalization’s added fresh every morning. (I.e. background images, the way you like your toolbars, your Favorites, etc.)
What is the benefit for the company?
Some Critical Applications do not Perform Well. Typically the bigger the application, the older the code it was written with. Applications that perform slowly on a PC can be unusable when accessed from a remote office. Virtual desktops technically stay in the datacenter right next to that really cumbersome application that your business relies on to exist, and because of that short distance, performance typically improves.
For the end user, all we are really moving between the datacenter and their endpoint of choice are the pixels on the screen, the keyboard and mouse clicks, so that all can move very fast over great distances making formerly unuseable applications useable again.
More Efficient for Staff. For healthcare organizations as an example, it might make sense to let a nurse log into computers in patient rooms in some instances or work from a tablet instead of asking him/her to walk back to the Nurse’s Station after each patient visit. A nurse walking room to room might have more time to take care of his/her patients than a nurse pushing a Computer on Wheels (CoWs or WoWs) around the unit.
For banks, as another example, working to minimize staffing at their branch locations as the population moves more toward online banking. Having the ability to move staff between branch locations on the fly to meet customer demand and have their “computers” follow them from office to office or station to station.
Hostile Working Conditions for Normal Computers. Computers don’t work well or tend to die faster in hostile working environments like manufacturing facilities, auto repair shops, oil well rigs, etc. The fans get clogged up, stop spinning, the computer overheats, and dies. Virtual Desktops can work very well on “thin clients” or essentially a stripped down computer with no moving parts. When one dies, replace it with one off the shelf and send the dead one off to be fixed.
Lower Support Costs. Having all of the organizations computers actually running on a few servers in the datacenter can be much more cost effective than trying to manage individual computers on everyone’s desk, Instead of one technician per 500 computers, that can scale to one per 2,400 or more.
BYOD. Bring Your Own Device policies work well in these scenarios where end users pay for, or are reimbursed, for the end point they are most comfortable with for doing their work. Theoretically, the end user is more productive using hardware they prefer and the company avoids the cost of supporting the endpoint.
Simplifies Technical Integrations for Mergers & Acquisitions. With computers and applications effectively reduced to a bunch of files it is easier to consolidate data centers and run merged companies with two different IT architectures. While the work experience for the end user does not change right away, the company can slowly merge the disparate IT infrastructures into a single cohesive organization. Day-to-day operations, at least from a technical perspective, continue business-as-usual while the IT integration happens quietly in the background.
IT Flexibility. When desktops are virtualized, a number of options open up for the organization in terms of where these desktops will ultimately live. If the decision is made for the organization to go to the cloud, close or change datacenters or get out of owning IT hardware altogether, having your PCs converted into files already makes that a much simpler and less expensive exercise.
Virtual Desktops, like all other forms of technology, are just another tool to help end users be productive and get work done, allowing some customization and personalization for end users to make adjustments for the way they work best.
Virtual desktops can be a fantastic win-win for businesses and end users alike, achieving both improved productivity and reduced IT support costs. If you want to know more or see virtual desktops in action, look us up. We use them everyday, we manage and/or host several thousand of them.
image courtesy of http://www.bia-sjsu.org/