Hosting virtual desktops: Tips for a successful outcome

Hosting virtual desktops: Tips for a successful outcome

How do you calculate and quantify those advantages, choose the right technology and build out a successful hosted virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

Rationalize your applications

The Co-operative Group's Cawson says the grocery chain's IT staff used AppDNA's AppTitude tool to evaluate the suitability of each of the company's 1,400 applications for virtualization. The tool also ranked the difficulty of consolidating or eliminating programs that had issues running in a virtual desktop environment. Some of the more difficult ones were dropped, and multiple versions of productivity applications, such as Adobe Photoshop, were consolidated.

So far, Cawson has packaged 200 applications for virtualization and discarded 100 others. The former are streamed into XenDesktop virtual desktops using App-V. Ultimately, Cawson hopes to cut the total application count by nearly half, to between 750 and 800.

As for the applications you do keep, be sure to check that your software vendors will support the products in a virtual client setting, INX's Kaplan suggests. Finally, going forward, he says, "make it an organizational requirement" that all RFPs sent to application vendors mandate support for desktop virtualization.

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 St. 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.

Petroleum Pipe Co.: Virtualization offers remote possibilities

Oil industry service provider Petroleum Pipe Co. (PPC) rolled out application virtualization to address desktop support issues in office locations ranging from Dubai to Singapore and is now considering full desktop virtualization.

"The traditional approach with servers and desktops in each office just isn't practical for us," says group IT manager Chris Starling, because it's hard to find support expertise in locations like Iraq. So about one and a half years ago, PPC deployed Citrix XenApp to virtualize application delivery.

"Our biggest savings is on the staff who keep it running," he says. "Nothing is as frustrating as watching one of your guys walking around to machine after machine, fixing the same things. Virtualization cuts down on those issues."

But Starling had to overcome another limitation before moving forward. "In places like Kurdistan, bandwidth is very expensive," he says. To optimize bandwidth, Starling brought in a third-party tool, Veloxum for Citrix, to maximize the performance over the networks and on the back-end servers.

Starling also launched a desktop virtualization testbed using XenDesktop, which he'd like to use in the Dubai headquarters to eliminate desktops in favor of thin clients. But both desktop and application virtualization technologies face cultural resistance. "We're faced with questions such as, where is the server, and why isn't it next door to me?"

Users also tend to resist the idea of a plain vanilla desktop, so Starling is considering adding personalization to the nonpersistent virtual desktops, which spin up from a common, golden image. "At the end of the day, our users want to be individuals," he says. "We can't deprive them of that."

Staff in some countries also resent the idea of being dictated to by people in another country. Virtualization is something that has to be sold, not forced. So Starling sells the benefits, such as how easy it is to get back up and working after a device failure or service interruption.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

"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."

Ease from pilot to deployment

After you understand the business imperatives, it's time to figure out the right technology. Do you need desktop virtualization at all, or is application virtualization enough? Should you follow the persistent VDI model, in which every user has a dedicated virtual machine, or follow a nonpersistent model, in which virtual desktops are spun up as needed from a common, standardized set of disk images? Do you need to add personalization to those nonpersistent images, and if so, will the basics offered by Citrix, Microsoft or VMware do, or do you need more sophisticated tools?

The answer may be "all of the above." Different user profiles dictate different technologies. Bring the products in, test them against your needs and expectations, and do a pilot, Accenture's Slattery suggests.

Summer says Whirlpool's VMware View pilot went on for 12 months before IT started rolling it out to 18,000 employees. He advises taking your time on both the pilot and deployment. "We had problems with the software, with applications and the network," he says. Since working through those issues, Whirlpool has rolled out the VMware View Client to a few hundred desktops and will continue as client hardware is refreshed. "In 12 to 18 months, we'll have about 10,000 people on virtual desktops," he says.

The pilot will also set the stage for selling users on the project. "You want users who like new technology, who will tolerate [problems] and generate positive buzz," says Kaplan.

While the pilot will give you champions of the technology among the user base, that doesn't mean you should skimp on training, Kaplan says. "In a lot of IT departments, the user walks in and sees a thin terminal on their desk and that's their introduction to VDI. You'd better have a strategy to sell it to users and get them excited about it," he says. He suggests talking about features such as the ability to "roll back" a desktop after a failure, and the ability to interrupt a desktop session at work, go home, log back in and pick up where you left off.

Rent-A-Center did video training. "That was a big hit for us," Chanani says. But he underestimated the sense of security that people feel knowing that their Word documents and other data reside on a physical device that's in their possession. "That's more powerful than I imagined," he acknowledges. "We still haven't gotten over that yet, even though the virtual experience looks and feels just like a Windows desktop."

Ultimately, the key to success lies not just in making the business case, but in creating a "business pull" for the technology rather than an IT push, says Summers. He stresses increased productivity through features such as faster boot times, greater reliability, faster recovery times, increased security and the ability to have almost instant access to the virtual desktop from any location or any device with an Internet connection. "That's our whole strategy," he adds.

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