(Originally published November 30, 2010 in Small Business Computing)
What is a Virtual Desktop?
A virtual desktop means that a user’s desktop environment (the icons, wallpaper, windows, folders, toolbars, widgets, etc.) is stored remotely on a server, rather than on a local PC or other client computing device. Desktop virtualization software separates the desktop operating systems, applications and data from the hardware client, storing this “virtual desktop” on a remote server.
The remote server that runs and supports virtual desktops uses software called a hypervisor to create a “virtual machine” that simulates the user’s desktop environment and capabilities. In a virtual desktop environment, users access their personal desktop remotely, over the Internet, from any client device.
Why Should You Care?
Desktop virtualization delivers on-demand desktops to users for anytime, anywhere, any device access. This provides employees with full access to their complete business desktop from multiple devices, such as their home PC, a smart phone or an iPad. Easy access to a virtualized desktop can help people to be more productive, because all they need to work is an Internet connection from any device, anywhere.
From an IT perspective, virtual desktops help reduce the time it takes to provision new desktops, and they also help to decrease desktop management and support costs. Experts estimate that maintaining and managing PC hardware and software accounts for 50 to 70 percent of the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a typical PC. Companies often turn to virtual desktops to cut these IT labor costs.
Since everything is centrally managed, stored and secured, virtual desktops eliminate the need to install, update and patch applications, back up files, and scan for viruses on individual client devices. Desktop virtualization also helps to streamline management of software assets.
Virtual desktops also provide greater security to the organization, since employees aren’t “carrying around” confidential company data on a personal device that could easily be lost, stolen or tampered with. For instance, in industries such as healthcare, where adherence to privacy regulations is of paramount importance, virtual desktops give medical personnel access to patient records without concerns about confidential information being downloaded. Since user data is backed up centrally and regularly, desktop virtualization also provides data integrity benefits.
Companies can also help extend the life of older client devices with desktop virtualization or use it to support thin clients. A thin client is a computing device that’s connected to a network. Unlike a typical PC or “fat client,” that has the memory, storage and computing power to run applications and perform tasks on its own, a thin client functions only as a virtual desktop, using the computing power residing on networked servers.
Because thin clients lack hard drives, CD-ROM drives, fans and other moving parts, they’re smaller, cheaper and simpler for manufacturers to build, they are cheaper to buy and maintain, and require less energy than traditional PCs or notebooks.
What to Consider
Many vendors both large (VMWare, Citrix, Microsoft, IBM, HP, etc.) and small (such as Panos, TuCloud and Virtual Bridges, just to name a few) provide virtual desktop solutions. These include the software used to manage the virtual desktops on the server side, which is called a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).
This software creates the desktop images, stores them on servers and sends them over the network for access via a client device. The VDI hosts each employee’s desktop within a virtual machine (VM) running on a centralized server. This means that IT needs to have the skills to adequately deploy and manage the VDI and network. A lack of expertise can result in security risks, and should the network go down, more widespread productivity losses.
If you don’t have the internal resources to manage this on you own, many vendors also provide and/or partner with managed service providers to provide virtual desktops as a hosted managed service. Hosted virtual desktop services are usually offered in a per-user, per-month subscription model. This model offers the added benefit of transferring IT infrastructure costs from a capital expense to an operating expense.
Another consideration is that performance for multimedia applications can be slow, since people access them over the network instead of on their own device. In addition, some people will resist the loss –real or perceived — of autonomy and privacy. People may also balk at giving up desktop applications and control over their workspace.
Finally, the missing link of offline support has been a key reason that many companies have resisted desktop virtualization. For many, this has been a show-stopper, because without offline support, users can’t access their virtual desktops offline. But several vendors, including Citrix and VMWare, have recently added offline support for their virtual desktop offerings — taking a significant leap to remove a critical adoption barrier.