In-Depth

Making VDI as Good for Users as Physical Desktops -- and Even Better

Once-doubtful users can easily be swayed to VDI's myriad benefits, if the technology is presented to them the right way.

(Full disclosure: This is a vendor-contributed article.)

It's understandable for IT to get excited about virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), the replacement of physical desktops with remotely accessed, virtualized versions hosted in the datacenter. Early VDI initiatives have tended to focus on VDI's ability to address IT and corporate priorities such as improved efficiency, security, business continuity and cost savings. But this emphasis can leave users wondering what's in it for them -- and rightly so. If the resulting performance fails to meet their needs, or unfamiliar environments undermine their productivity, is the organization really better off?

In reality, of course, VDI can mean considerable benefits for users, from greater flexibility, to enhanced productivity, to more responsive IT support. If you go about it the right way, you can deliver an experience that's not only just as good as a physical desktop, but even better, with users feeling upgraded -- not downgraded.

Making VDI Just as Good as Physical Desktops
The first step of a successful VDI initiative is to make sure that users can still do everything they've always done at least as well as before, and that the transition proceeds as smoothly and seamlessly as possible. It's a good idea to begin with simple use cases that allow you to get comfortable with the basics of VDI before moving on to more challenging areas. Line-of-business personnel and operational roles like HR, accounting and customer service offer a good starting point, with relatively standard, text-based productivity applications and predictable tasks. Latency and bandwidth are rarely a factor in performance, and such users are unlikely to need more advanced applications or configurations.

As more applications move to the Web, employees who do much of their work online become another promising VDI use case. Browser bookmarks, saved passwords, history, cookies and other configurations can easily follow users wherever they log in, regardless of device.

Personnel in areas like marketing, training and data visualization who rely on 3-D graphics, rich media and image-intensive content represent a more challenging use case. For these users, it's essential to deliver a truly high-definition experience within the context of your existing bandwidth and latency; otherwise, stalled streams, long load times and imprecise scrolling can make VDI and rich content seem mutually exclusive. The right technology will leverage the available resources effectively to serve any type of content, even in high-latency, low-bandwidth environments. This technology will automatically detect the underlying capabilities in the datacenter, network and end-user device, and dynamically allocate the workload across the end-to-end delivery system accordingly. Citrix HDX technologies does just this - in the datacenter, on the network and at the endpoint device to provide the user with a PC-like experience.

While there are technologies that attempt to address these rich-media challenges from one location -- for example by brute-force heavy compression techniques in the datacenter -- these come at the expense of scalability, bandwidth and hardware infrastructure costs. Users don't have to understand how or why it works; all that matters to them is that they're getting consistently high-definition performance no matter where they work or what device they're using.

For all types of users, the preservation of desktop personalization is essential for making a positive first impression of VDI. It's not enough just to provide access to the same applications; if the first thing they see when they log in to their new virtual desktop is a completely unfamiliar screen, their skepticism of VDI will seem justified. On the other hand, a VDI solution that enables you to migrate complete user profiles from the local PC to the virtual desktop allows users to resume work instantly in a familiar environment -- from the background image to cookies, passwords, file and folder structures, icons, and shortcuts -- for a truly seamless transition.

Making It Even Better
As with any virtualization technology, the point of VDI isn't simply to replicate existing capabilities; the virtualized desktop should offer unique advantages beyond its physical counterpart.

One of the most obvious user benefits of VDI is the ability to walk up to any device in the company and log in to the same personalized desktop. As users travel from office to office, or switch to a loaner while their usual device is being serviced or replaced, they can always have the same consistent experience: the same data stored the same way, the same applications and configurations, the same personalizations.

The same holds true for personnel who occasionally need to finish work in the evening or on weekends, or work part of the time at home. Rather than having to remember which device holds the latest version of a document, or wish they had access to the same applications at home as at work, users can log in securely to their virtual desktop and pick up exactly where they left off at the office. Similarly, mobile workers can use any computer at all -- even a borrowed or rented one -- to access their complete desktop environment, without risk of leaving behind unsecured data.

VDI can also yield other benefits by allowing a broader range of options for user hardware -- for example, thin clients. Traditionally thought of as low-end, kiosk-style devices designed to control the end user, today's thin clients offer better aesthetics as well as greater functionality, including laptop-like form factors, built-in 3G cards, rich graphics and the ability to attach peripherals. Users spend most of their work day looking into their desktop. Instead of replacing their familiar (if homely) PC with a utilitarian box and monitor, a workstation with a sleeker, more modern look allows them more personal choice for customizing their work space. And if some of the resulting cost savings can be re-invested in dual monitors for users who need a lot of screen real estate, all the better.

Changing the Game Entirely
Beyond smarter-better-faster improvements, VDI also enables IT to fundamentally rethink the way user hardware is provisioned. An increasing number of organizations have embraced a "bring-your-own-computer" program which -- just as it sounds -- allows people to use their own personal computer at the office. Just as pervasive connectivity and always-on communications have effaced traditional boundaries between work and personal life, BYOC makes it possible for users to take care of personal business while on breaks at the office or finish up work at home. With only one environment to personalize and consistent access to both sets of data and applications, from any location, users become more efficient and productive in everything they do, business and personal alike.

Here's the way BYOC works at Citrix: Instead of getting a standard-issue laptop, employees are given a $2,100 voucher to buy and maintain a system of their own choosing (a sleek, lightweight Mac laptop or a high-end PC gaming machine -- whatever best fits their personality, needs and lifestyle). The employee then logs on to a XenDesktop virtual desktop and has instant access to all the data and applications they would get from a company-issued PC. We've had overwhelmingly positive feedback from users, and are already outpacing our goals for participation.

In the past, this scenario would have created an IT nightmare, making it impossible to enforce effective security or control interaction between personal and business workspaces. Now, a bare-metal client hypervisor with 100 percent isolation can enable you to keep the two environments, data, and applications entirely separate. In fact, BYOC can even represent an improvement for IT, reducing dependency on them to procure and manage laptops and allowing a more service-oriented approach to IT. After all, employees already use personal computers for company work and vice versa; this way, they can do so without all the security headaches, support emergencies and other complications that can otherwise arise.

As trends in IT, business and the economy continue to drive broader adoption of VDI, use cases like these will become par for the course at enterprises of all kinds. By leveraging available technologies and best practices to support the needs of end users and IT alike, companies can make VDI an everybody-wins proposition across the organization.

About the Author

Calvin Hsu is director of product marketing at Citrix Systems.

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