Getting it right: Virtual desktop best practices

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) can provide a centralized, more efficient client environment that’s easier to manage, and lead to happier users who don’t feel tethered to a single desktop.

But while VDI can bring significant advantages to organizations, the space is moving so rapidly that IT leaders could feel “blown away” by the rate of change, according to Jim Love, CIO and managing partner of the Chelsea Consulting Group.

“You could easily freeze up and just say, ‘I can’t cope,’ but you have to make a decision,” Love says. “Do you keep the expensive desktops that you have, or do you move forward into a virtualized and collaborative environment?”

In particular, VDI can help overcome the incredibly complex environments IT has to deal with. Even relatively small organization can have a glut of different operating systems, browsers, and devices including desktops, laptops, tablets and mobile phones, Love points out. “Before you know it, supporting this is a nightmare.”

Combating this complexity and reducing PC maintenance cost are drivers to VDI migration, but so are improving security and supporting remote staff. For example, implementing a VDI solution can eliminate the perceived need by employees to use unsecure flash storage or USB drives, since they can access their desktop—and its data—from anywhere. “If you do it right, your support issues decrease enormously, and your security issues decrease enormously,” Love professes. But how does one do it right?

Business-based decision making With the plethora of VDI solutions and options available, Love urges IT organizations to pay close attention to the business needs driving the adoption. “If you just fall in love with the technology, you can walk down a path you might later regret,” Love warns. “Because you’ll get a whiz-bang solution for a problem you don’t have.”

He notes key business drivers of collaboration, productivity gains, security and reduced support costs, each can be achieved well through many different “flavours” of VDI. “You have to know exactly what you need. You could easily pay too much.”

Also, although VDI generally improves security, there can be a cloud-like exposure risk, since desktops are now being accessed outside the firewall. Most of these risks are due to user error and carelessness, Love says, stressing the importance of educating users.

“You increase your remote work, and you might not be ready for it,” he says. “Because this stuff is so easy to deploy, we forget we have to train people, and that people learn at different levels and can be intimidated by it.”

Given the rapid pace of innovation in virtualization, Love also recommends investigating how seamless a move between solutions would be before committing to one. “Is it going to be an easy move, or am I going to be stuck with a legacy solution?” he suggests asking. Pick solutions carefully based on vendor roadmaps of the direction their solutions are moving and the organization’s evolving business needs.

People and processes

Love recommends organizations have access to experts with extensive knowledge of the VDI solution, whether they are staff, vendor or resellers. “You can easily find people who have 80 per cent of the knowledge needed, but when you need that other 20 per cent you had better be able to find it fast.”

This is because while VDI provides the benefit of centralized management and support, it also can create a single point of failure. When a PC breaks down, the quick fix is to buy a new one; however, if the virtualized environment breaks down it can bring business to a grinding halt.

“Before you know it, there’s a disaster and you’re phoning the help-desk or trying to get support in house.” Love recommends for many organizations to make sure they work with a partner who has that expertise.

It may seem obvious, but organizations must make sure there’s a planned architecture. “You don’t have to have all the answers, but don’t just dive in and start to do it,” he says. “You’ll be amazed how fast it will grow, so stand back and do a little more planning.”

If successful, Love says the VDI deployment will be adopted rapidly, so start small. Begin with a pilot, and expect some resistance. Love recommends a “Tom Sawyer” approach to overcoming the resistance: sweeten the pot for early adopters, possibly with a new device or new collaborative tools, and word will spread and users will be asking to be involved.

Another side effect of a successful VDI deployment is that it can increase the Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) problems organizations are already facing. “BYOD could just explode,” Love says. While the software is centralized, IT could then face a challenge of dealing with unsupported device failures.

Ultimately, though, with a focus on business value, the VDI pros outweigh the cons, especially when avoiding some of the common pitfalls of rushing into solutions or deploying without a solid architecture.