The devilish details of desktop virtualization

Early adopters of virtual desktop infrastructure report compelling benefits, significant hurdles, and a cloudy view into ROI

Faced with a massive PC refresh at a price tag of US$1.8 million, Jack Wilson instead rolled the dice on virtual desktops three years ago. The enterprise architect at Amerisure Insurance didn't just dabble in the nascent technology, he enacted a sweeping change, replacing all 800 PCs with Wyse thin clients and a server infrastructure that hosts 800 Windows workspaces -- a feat that took eight months and, critically, struck at the heart of worker productivity in a services-dependent industry.

Wilson had to rethink his entire infrastructure, from servers and storage to the network and its points of potential failure. He had to convince employees to give up their powerful PCs and embrace thin clients. And he had to deliver a solid return on investment to his bosses. Essentially, Wilson gambled that desktop virtualization wasn't just a fad but the future.

Today, Wilson basks in the limelight of success. "I've been in IT for 30-plus years and had a lot of really great ideas, but none of them actually worked out as well as I had thought," Wilson says. Desktop virtualization "is the only thing I've done that has exceeded my expectations."

Bold companies such as Amerisure have embarked on the desktop virtualization journey, navigating uncharted waters and steamrolling toward a fuzzy future. Yet most are reaping the cool benefits of the technology today. Amerisure, for instance, expects to save a few million by avoiding next year's traditional PC refresh cycle as well as one in 2012.

The virtualization buzz

The term "desktop virtualization" generally refers to centralizing desktop applications inside a datacenter. These applications can be hosted on a traditional server farm and delivered to remote users via Citrix or Windows terminal services, or in the case of VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), they can be run in Windows virtual machines on a VMware server. End-users simply launch a browser on a thin client -- or any PC, for that matter -- and access their desktops over the network. Regardless of how you centralize the desktops, the essential benefits remain the same: Virtual desktops are easier to manage, provision, and secure than PCs.

On the dollar-savings front, Forrester Research estimates that desktop virtualization costs around US$860 per user (plus any required network upgrades) to deploy, which is less than the cost of a PC. Amerisure reaped not only these PC savings but additional benefits as well. Help-desk calls, for instance, have decreased by 80 percent because thin clients rarely run into trouble. The cost of rolling out a new desktop operating system, such as Vista, is cheap with virtual desktops but a major hit on the balance sheet with PCs.

Another bonus: Wilson no longer frets about virus-laden PCs infecting his network or hackers stealing data from PCs. "I'm not worried about catching something off a laptop because I'm just borrowing the laptop's screen and keyboard," he explains. "In a traditional VPN model, it would be a problem because you would be connected to my network."

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