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Endpoint Virtualization Community Blog

To Virtualize or Not to Virtualize: That is the Question

Created: 05 Jan 2011 • Updated: 27 Jan 2011 • 1 comment
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Maybe you are determined to buy some virtualization technologies, but are having trouble figuring out where to start - or where to end. The first question to ask is 'Why am I doing this?' What do I hope to accomplish by virtualizing? Am I sacrificing anything that is important to my business in the process? Then you can determine the best way to accomplish that, realizing that the solution may come from the world of virtualization, or not. I will again stress the importance of reviewing each type of virtualization independently of the others, as they solve very different problems and have unique cost models and value equations.

Let's start with a quick (grossly over-simplified but useful) summary of value for the three levels of virtualization previously discussed.

  • Server Virtualization: Reduce hardware cost and increase flexibility in the datacenter.
  • Desktop Virtualization: Reduce cost of deploying and maintaining end-user systems.
  • Endpoint Virtualization: Automate end-user workspaces and reduce IT support costs.

Note that cost reduction comes up a lot when talking about virtualization. This is generally a reasonable assumption, but note where additional training and skills will be necessary to support the new technologies. Plus, virtualization rarely completely displaces pre-existing or non-virtual technologies, so it may also be an additional cost, even if that portion of the budget is smaller. I will not spend a lot of time on Server Virtualization, first because it is generally better understood than the others, and second because most of the discussion and confusion today is around the other two. Here is an easy distinction: THE DESKTOP IS THE WORK ENVIRONMENT, NOT THE WORK ITSELF. While Desktop Virtualization provides a different door to a different office - the user will still need the same things he always needs to do his job, whatever office he may be using today. Endpoint Virtualization is about the THINGS the user needs to have IN the office to get his job done, also referred to as his WORKSPACE. Today, I'll just focus on Desktop Virtualization.

A brief overview of Desktop Virtualization

As mentioned above, Desktop Virtualization is about reducing the cost of deploying and maintaining end-user systems. Traditionally, client systems are physical laptops and desktops, and much of the cost comes from the variety of hardware profiles (increasing support costs and reducing stability) and the distributed nature of the systems (making IT access more difficult and costly). Virtualizing these desktops simply relocates the client operating system back to the datacenter, improving both complicating factors. Now the client desktops can be in one easy-to-access location on similar or identical hardware. [Remember that even when the client operating system is in the data center, some form of distributed hardware is still required for user access.] There are three common approaches to this, each with its own cost model. They are, in order of increasing overall cost: terminal servers, virtual hosted desktops (or VDI), and blades. So why doesn't everybody just implement terminal servers for everybody since it is the cheapest? The answer is that there are tradeoffs and compromises with each solution.

Choosing the right client desktop model is a matter of evaluating and balancing needs - both the needs of IT to be manageable, cost-effective and secure; and the needs of the end user to be productive, connected, mobile, flexible, personalized, etc. Evaluating different groups or departments within a company should yield different conclusions. For example, in a call center, there are task workers that are repetitively performing the same tasks over and over, and the job doesn't really vary from person to person. Plus, they are generally working in a well-connected office. Therefore, terminal servers often works best in this situation. It provides the necessary connectivity; there is not much need for personalization of the desktops; and the shared CPU model is more than sufficient for the low performance demands. Clearly the cheapest computing model works well here.

In another example, a group of engineers may also work in a corporate office, so connectivity is not an issue, but they will not get the computing performance required to do their job in a shared terminal server environment. VDI (or even blades) might be a better option here because the desktop environment is dedicated to the individual (Note that blades provide a dedicated CPU and memory as well). There might also be some security reasons to use VDI or blades over distributed PCs, especially if outsourcing your engineering effort. We also have to acknowledge the road warriors and "work-from-home" groups that cannot count on a fat internet connection (or even a thin one in many cases), yet still must be productive. While they may still benefit from some forms of virtualization (application virtualization or streaming for example - see next blog), desktop virtualization is not going to be a good fit here. Physical systems may be more expensive, but are still a requirement for these groups to be productive. Remember that no organization will make money if their users cannot be productive - that's what it's all about.

So the quest for the perfect desktop environment is not really about TWO options - whether to virtualize or not, as much as it is to select the right balance of IT and end-user factors. To that end I will propose that there are really FOUR primary options to choose from for each of your end-user groups, each which deserve equal consideration:

  1. Terminal Servers
  2. Virtual Hosted Desktops (VDI)
  3. Blades
  4. Desktops and Laptops (yes, this could be 2 separate categories)

Can Desktop Virtualization save money? Yes, in some cases. Is money the only factor to consider? No, in all cases. It is a great thing to be able to standardize, and if you can get away with only 2 or 3 of these models in your environment, then great! But don't compromise on productivity. Still, your total desktop support costs will be the sum of all models in place. And there are more costs to consider. Remember that all we have discussed here is where the working environment is, and how the user may access it. In the next installment, I'll discuss Endpoint Virtualization, a collection of technologies that may help with the tools and assets within the desktop that the user needs to be productive, like applications, profiles, even the data itself.

- Brian Duckering

Previous Blog: I Know All About Virtualization, Don’t I?

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