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The Future of VDI

Starting in 2010, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) was starting to make progress in the minds of corporate IT engineers and architects. The complexity of the infrastructure required to operate virtual desktops was coming to light and, for higher-budget IT departments or with specific use cases, VDI was attainable. VDI addresses a couple obvious use cases:

1)    Infrastructure refresh: With the typical corporate IT refresh occurring every three to five years, VDI's coming of age meant existing hardware could be turned into a VDI client and new purchases could be thin-client only. Existing endpoints were stretched further and new endpoints were cheaper (in theory).

2)    Branch simplicity: VDI brings the end-user compute environment back to the datacenter. As a result, there is less of a need (if any) to have critical IT resources at branch locations. Instead, a solid WAN connection is required to connect clients to their workstations. The cost to operate and maintain a branch decreases significantly.

3)    Easier desktop maintenance: The knowledge requirement to maintain end-user desktops does not go away, but it does shift to a new set of technologies. Desktop engineers can look forward to updating a single image and having all newly created desktops update immediately.

Two significant roadblocks hinder pushing VDI from wish to fruition: cost and performance. The cost of the infrastructure to support VDI is significant. So significant, the ROI for a VDI investment is not typically seen for three to four years; about the time that the next IT refresh would be amortized. Storage represents the most significant cost as VDI is IO-intensive and the required storage infrastructure (the number of spinning disks) is fairly high (recall that SSD was not a possibility for most in 2010). VDI environments are sensitive to both available IOPS as well as latencies for providing the data from the arrays.

The VDI wave was high and strong. However, no one was able to ride that wave.

Where is VDI now?

The years 2010 to 2012 brought some maturity to VDI products. Better user-profile management, more sophisticated functionality with image cloning, enhanced transport protocols, and better performing storage infrastructure were among the benefits. A significant number of SSD-based storage arrays are coming to market that make the ROI proposition much more palatable. One would think all the pieces are there for VDI to take off.

However, a new nemesis is in town and is causing interesting future-planning conversations: The everything-as-a-service model (XaaS) and cloud computing.

XaaS and cloud computing represent a move toward service providers and non-local computing resources. Applications are becoming more Web-based and require less local infrastructure — Google, Microsoft, salesforce.com, Dropbox, and a host of others provide infrastructureless solutions that are compelling for many companies. What good is a virtual desktop when email is hosted at Google or the CRM application is at salesforce.com?

Plus, the companies that did not consider VDI in 2010 and 2011 may have committed to a hardware refresh and cannot afford to implement VDI for a number of years. Who knows what the ecosystem will look like then (most likely more Web-based than ever)?

VDI is struggling to maintain relevance in an XaaS and cloud computing world. What kind of future (use cases) does VDI have going forward? Despite running into the resistance of the XaaS and cloud computing juggernaut, VDI has a number of use cases that provide value for the solution going forward:

  • Security: VDI keeps the data internal to the network. Policy settings can be enforced that enable a higher level of security at the desktop than is possible with physical desktops.
  • Mergers and acquisitions: One of the most difficult components of a merger or acquisition is integration of new users. For example: bringing a new company into the corporate WAN to access WAN resources and applications. But VDI implementations can run over existing infrastructure to link new employees to corporate infrastructure quickly (imagine a purchase being completed on Friday and the employees using VDI on Monday).
  • Disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity (BC): The first thoughts around DR and BC always circle around ensuring datacenter-specific resources are available at another location. But what happens if an earthquake, flood, asteroid or zombie attack renders an office unusable? If people cannot get to the data, it may as well not exist. VDI allows users to establish a temporary workplace at home, coffee shop, or hotel conference room, and resume work until local office facilities can be resolved.
  • Bring-your-own-device (BYOD): This new four-letter word represents an up-and-coming movement. VDI infrastructure allows a business to support BYOD while providing a secure and corporate-blessed workstation environment.
  • Moving targets: Hospitals are a great example of a moving target. Doctors, nurses, and hospital staff regularly move from location to location. A VDI infrastructure allows users to disconnect and reconnect from room to room with little or no interruption of session functions.
  • Rapid response: Disaster responders have significant hurdles to jump through to get basic infrastructure operational so they can start their work. VDI requires less local infrastructure to be delivered to local sites, and means less to update and test. Laptops with GSM, CDMA and LTE can immediately connect to VDI resources and get started. With local resources already on site, the response can be even faster.
  • Remote workers: Remote workers represent a fairly common use case for VDI. Connecting to the corporate WAN requires unique maintenance functions for IT to implement to manage remote endpoints. Connecting personal equipment to the corporate WAN may be out of the question. Providing VDI resources ensures the remote worker is using the corporate standard image with known and predictable functionality. Plus, data access is typically quicker as the data access is no longer on the WAN, but on the LAN.

VDI is not going away anytime soon. XaaS and the cloud offer viable alternatives to what VDI may have addressed a couple years ago. However, there are always use cases that will drive VDI forward.

Bill Hill / Aug 02, 2012

Bill is an industry recognized vExpert. By day Bill manages the IT infrastructure for a multinational logistics company. By night he blogs on virtualbill....more