Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) has become an increasingly attractive technology for CIOs grappling with cost control while trying to satisfy demands for IT consumerisation, flexible working, and access to information from multiple connected devices.
However, there are many challenges to overcome. IT leaders met at a recent Computer Weekly roundtable event, in association with Dell and Citrix, to discuss the implications of desktop virtualisation on infrastructure, device management, and deciding on the different options available to suit user needs.
Several delegates are at the trial stage of desktop virtualisation, or evaluating it as an option as they approach a desktop refresh project. The key business drivers include saving money and flexibility, but each organisation is different and the aim is finding what works for you.
David Cooke, head of service delivery at the Ministry of Justice, said, “We are looking at a major desktop refresh and so are considering Citrix, or we may stay 'fat' client.”
Matt Whiting, head of IT service at Top Right Group, the publishing firm formerly known as Emap, said the desktop is not changing immediately: "I am prepared for a desktop change in nine to 12 months and we will look at virtualisation then."
Andrew Bover, head of ICT at 1st Credit added, “We are looking at VDI as a way of driving costs down in our call centre as an alternative to the desktop.”
Some of the IT leaders had previously considered the technology and rejected it, but now believe it has advanced to the stage where it is viable.
David Bond, global IT director, infrastructure at B&H Worldwide, said the logistics firm moved its services into the cloud, but initially stalled at VDI.
“We looked at it 18 months ago, but think it is better now,” he said.
Others are further advanced and have rolled out VDI projects, often alongside a Windows upgrade programme.
The incremental business value of VDI has got to be shown in the current climate.
Don Kavanagh, lead enterprise architect, London Deanery
For example, Matt Taylor, technical associate director, Windows Group at Fidelity International, said the investment fund manager has moved from XP to Windows 7 and VDI has been deployed for 500 people.
“One word – flexibility,” said one IT leader from a global financial services firm, of the reason for introducing VDI.
He said the ability to move people around the office, allowing them global access to systems, while holding data in a consistent environment with the same look and feel, was a key driver.
"Moving people is extremely disruptive and there are a million moves a year across the whole firm as people cluster to work on deals and then disperse. Some have three PCs under their desk and five or six screens plus telephony, so anything that removes the friction in moving this equipment is welcome," he said.
Removing the power and heat generated by PCs and the cost of freeing up real estate in expensive City locations were further benefits.
The company recently underwent a merger of divisions and VDI proved most beneficial in saving costs and avoiding having to put in another PC network. The global finance firm has rolled out to 20,000 users and is aiming for over 40,000 virtual desktops with 100% VDI by the end of the year.
But the IT leader said the company is still reliant on its legacy mainframe.
“VDI enables us to bring the two worlds together. A key driver is we can embrace more web-based technology and cloud-based technology with legacy-based technology, and the user doesn’t know where it comes from and doesn’t care,” he said.
Fidelity's Taylor agreed that flexibility and speed are key business benefits: “18 months ago the costs didn’t add up but we did a pilot. The job can be done quicker with a lot of flexibility and the cost of the equipment is OK,” he said
Another IT leader from a major police force said the danger of any VDI initiative is seeing it purely as a desktop project.
“It’s not about the desktop. It’s the ability to do the work you need to do with the appropriate device. You have to give clear business benefits. Virtualisation allows us to get control of information, while giving the user the same experience,” he said.
Cost alone cannot justify VDI, according to the IT leader from a global financial services firm, and on this basis it was decided not to roll out the technology to all areas of the business.
“There was a strong case for VDI for the traditional investment banking side of the firm as it was moving to Windows 7, but the business looked at the finances and it came down to a capital investment decision and this couldn’t be justified in the short term, so a physical upgrade was decided upon,” he said.
The benefits couldn’t offset all the costs of VDI, although he believes it can now be achieved more effectively: “VDI costs are coming down and the technology roadmap means roll-out is close to parity with a physical roll-out."
He estimates the project made $22m savings and cost $30m, but said the negative could become a positive in 18 months.
Ajay Uppal, CTO at T-Systems International, said a critical mass of 10,000 seats is necessary for VDI payback.
“If you are a small company go for Google Apps. Look at what kind of user you are,” he said.
Uppal also recommended doing VDI in conjunction with Windows 7 upgrades: “If you do it in two parts, then God save you."
Bover said it is easier to justify cost in a dynamic environment, but it is harder to do so in a static workplace.
“It is a more difficult sale to the CFO to justify the spend within a static environment, such as a call centre, because it may be viewed as more of the same with a few bolt-ons. A lot of people have sold VDI as a way to reduce the cost of the desktop, so there needs to be a significant business benefit,” he said.
Don Kavanagh, lead enterprise architect at NHS training body London Deanery, said, “The incremental business value of VDI has got to be shown in the current climate.”
Another delegate added: "VDI may not be the answer for everyone, but the key is you can’t continue doing the same thing, and IT has to figure out how to help the business grow."
Most users will not notice the difference in performance between a physical PC and a virtual desktop, but some heavy users are very sensitive about graphics quality and can notice nuances between the two.
“The user experience is really difficult to define,” said one IT leader from a financial services firm.
But many users enjoy the flexibility VDI lends their working day, and the finance firm is aiming for a "follow me" approach where users can keep a consistent workspace with access to applications and data the same wherever they are. For example, they can take a tablet-device on the move, and work on something more heavyweight when they sit down.
Latency is a concern for some IT chiefs thinking of VDI.
Dee Rowe, IT project manager at law firm Pinsent Masons, said that as a global organisation latency is a major issue for lawyers needing access to documentation on the move.
The consensus from the IT leaders was that much depends on the network, where the connections go, and how it is configured, with trade-offs to be expected. For example, one global company’s employees based in South Africa found that opening large PowerPoint attachments was almost instant via VDI, compared to previously having to wait for them to download from a central email system.
Fraser Kyne, senior technologist at Citrix, said: “I know two different law firms and for one if latency is about 50ms it is not a good experience, whereas the other is delighted with 270ms latency. It depends on their perception of reality. If it benefits them, users will sign up to VDI,” he said.
Moving to VDI can cause glitches due to network, storage and applications being interconnected, so separate technology teams need to work together.
For example, one firm experienced a problem when the tool it created to enable power-down closed every single virtual machine, bringing performance grinding to a halt.
Read more on desktop virtualisation
The IT leader from the firm said different technical groups had to be brought together to identify the problem. He said the challenge should not be under-estimated and one approach is to bring all the people that support the technology into one team.
“We are also investing in monitoring tools that look at the infrastructure and hypervisor side of things and the desktop as well, so we cover both angles,” he said.
I/O (input/output) accelerators are an option for improving performance, but Bover said the technology is expensive within the context of a virtual environment.
“It does not work well as you are not using centralised storage,” he said.
Guillaume Field, European marketing manager, end user solutions at Dell, said VDI is about more than just desktops, and IT leaders need to change the conversation from focusing on technical issues, such as scaling and I/O.
“We can mix it for you, and think that’s a better way to deploy client and application virtualisation; and less expensive,” he said.
Many delegates believe there is no silver bullet to reduce complexity and there will only be a greater variety of technologies to support in future, but the challenge is to ensure the user doesn’t know the difference from a performance perspective.
The police force IT leader said his Commissioner likes the iPad and is disappointed he can’t use it on the network.
“There are complex security rules, but we want to be able to provide a level of variability around machines and deliver applications on iPads and Android tablets. Virtualisation fits within that context of supporting multiple devices, but security is critical,” he said.
Bover said users appreciate technology that helps them do their jobs.
“If they feel IT imposes a burden and doesn’t help them, any disruptive project will be a huge challenge. They tolerate technology if it allows them to do their job,” he said.
Top Right Group's Whiting said VDI enables more effective use of devices.
“The endgame is [providing] a mechanism to get into applications. Users can be on a PC one instant and on an iPad in another,” he said.
Dell's Field said consumerisation and virtualisation are here to stay.
"Users want to fully participate in corporate life across diverse devices within a changing environment and do voice, telephony or videoconferencing from wherever. Desktop virtualisation is an extraction and gives you as much flexibility as possible with as few moving parts as possible,” he said.
London Deanery's Kavanagh said VDI is always going to be a journey: “We are stepping to a future and it can’t be done bottom-up. The architect, the IT team and the business must make the step change. The key is the ability to get to the point where there is value."
This was first published in June 2012