It’s not uncommon to run into an IT professional who scoffs at the mention of virtual desktops. “I tried that, the performance was horrible,” “The users hate it,” and similar complaints tend to be the sentiment driven by outdated experiences.
To be fair, early attempts at virtual desktops did have resounding performance issues, meaning that the end users most definitely could tell the difference – and weren’t happy with the move. But it’s important to understand why initial attempts at virtual desktop infrastructure and desktop virtualization in general failed – and how those shortcomings have disappeared in the intervening years.
The largest complaint about early VDI and virtual desktops was that it didn’t perform well. What was supposed to be an IT and productivity revolution stumbled right out of the gate. While disappointing, those early results are hardly surprising.
The iterations of VDI that emerged in the early 2000s were built using generalized hardware not designed to support the specific needs of virtual desktops. That means that common use cases like large file sizes and spikes in network traffic caused massive problems, especially when combined with infrastructure shortcomings like poor storage performance and load balancing challenges.
Since then, two major things have happened to boost performance:
- Technology as a whole has improved, driving improved performance across the board
- Infrastructure has been developed specifically to address and support virtual desktop needs
The introduction of hyperconverged infrastructure and drastically improved storage capacities has abolished major bottlenecks in early VDI. High-performing VDIs now make use of solid state drives (SSD) in place of inadequate spinning disks. VDI-specific design has also emerged, resulting in networking and segmentation that improve and maintain performance.
Disappearing User Complaints
The user adoption issue was almost entirely driven by performance issues. No one wants to use a solution that is slow, clunky and performs poorly. With technology updated and solutions available that are specifically designed from the ground up to support virtual desktops, end users are less likely to experience a performance discrepancy.
How we consume technology has also changed dramatically in the past decade, setting up everyday users to be more open to virtual desktops. When VDI was first attempted, the majority of users were used to native applications and isolated environments. With the rise of cloud delivered applications and software as a service (SaaS) solutions such as Office 365, Salesforce, etc., logging into an application has become as natural as clicking on a desktop icon. Today’s prevalence and reliability of high speed internet also makes connecting (and maintaining that connection) to virtual desktops easier, even when users are away from the office.
Single sign on (SSO) and similar user-centric solutions have further simplified the process, making virtual desktop use as streamlined as any other business solution commonly used today.
Another major element that turned businesses against VDI was its complexity and cost. No one will argue that virtual desktop infrastructure and environments are elaborate and complicated to build and maintain. Even now, in-house VDI initiatives often outpace original time, resource and cost estimates and require VDI experts to oversee, manage and successfully deploy the project. This complexity, especially at a time when the technology and underpinning requirements were new and not well understood, resulted in virtual desktop initiatives being too costly to justify – particularly when coupled with the poor performance at the time.
Now that virtual desktop infrastructure is better understood, the threat of hidden costs has diminished. Building in-house VDI is still no small or affordable undertaking, but having a better understanding of the requirements, timeframe and resources needed for virtual desktops can help organization better budget for the project and assess solution options.
We’ve also reached a point where some of the major budget killers have become more advanced and affordable. What once broke the bank to get a barely passable solution is now available at much higher quality and lower cost. A clear example of this trend is the improvement of storage. Once a major bottleneck for virtual desktops, storage capacities and performance metrics have drastically improved while the price per GB has decreased. Storage changes have emerged that specifically cater to VDI and end user needs, such as developments in file access, storage design, file systems and tiered storage infrastructure like SSD drives for caching and production work loads and HDD for archival storage.
As tech advances, it has a tendency to become more affordable and key elements of successful VDI implementations have benefited from this trend.
There’s also the emergence of desktop as a service (DaaS), which allows organizations to deploy virtual desktops without the costly in-house infrastructure and maintenance. While there is some debate as to whether this consumption-based model is ultimately more affordable than in-house VDI, it does allow organizations to transfer costly CAPEX to predictable OPEX and opens the world of virtual desktops to organizations that cannot justify the infrastructure upgrades and in-house expertise. This option also allows companies to focus capital and resources on their core business versus technology and expertise.
Cultural Demand for Virtualization
While the technology advancements alone make virtual desktops worth revisiting, corporations are feeling increasing pressure from a lifestyle perspective to reconsider the promise of enhanced productivity and physical desktop liberation. The workforce and our approach to working are unequivocally shifting. The number of work at home programs, remote workers and third party contractors are increasing – more than 50% of the workforce is expected to be remote by 2020 and 54% of organizations have missed out on hiring the best candidate because of an inability to meet the candidate’s telecommuting requirements. Additionally, organizations are adopting a “bring your own device” (BYOD) mentality (74% already have the practice in place or are planning to make the shift). These trends make it harder for IT teams to manage hardware, software and security.
Virtual desktops are an easy answer to these rising challenges. Device agnostic, a virtual desktop will work for just about every employee with a quality internet connection, regardless of location or endpoint. Organizations no longer need to provision, ship and track costly devices to remote workers and the burden of hardware management shifts to the end user. If an employee leaves the company or a contract ends, virtual desktop access is revoked and companies don’t need to go through the hassle of getting a computer back or ensuring data hasn’t been improperly retained.
Virtual desktops also help companies easily meet the challenges of finding top talent. Expertise no longer needs to located within the office’s immediate geography. An expert can be located across the country or in another country and still have easily managed access to all the data and applications needed, allowing organizations to dramatically expand their hiring footprint.
Virtual desktops let organizations meet workforce desires for device customization and remote working while simplifying traditional IT tasks like hardware management and maintenance.
While companies are looking for ways to meet shifting workforce demands, they must also contend with the fallout of this new way of life – much larger security risk. Not only have data breaches become more prevalent because of the increasing value of sensitive data and the rise of a generation that grew up natively with technology, the sheer spread of data among endpoints and end users naturally exposes data to more risk. That means organizations must tandemly balance meeting workforce expectations with security needs.
When implementing virtual desktops, organizations can rest easy that their sensitive data is isolated from host environments. Data, and even application access, can be isolated within the virtual desktop environment so even if a device is lost or stolen (an increasing risk as people travel with their devices), the data cannot be accessed without authorization or even multi factor authentication.
Within the virtual desktop environment, IT teams can implement enhanced security through strict user controls – such as disabling high risk functions like USB access and printing. Instead of touching every device or user account to put these controls in place. This allows security to be easily implemented when first provisioning desktops and if changes or updates are needed. The same centralized concept applies to patching and updating software, making it easier to close vulnerabilities more quickly, limiting risk.
Beyond the security needs driven by an expanding workforce, there are additional business drivers common in today’s corporate climate that add value to desktop virtualization.
Consumer consumption models are changing, putting pressure on organizations to expand service offerings to meet new expectations. This can be seen mostly clearly in the increasing prevalence of seasonal business (holiday shopping, tax season, healthcare enrollment, etc.) and in the expansion of old industries into new, digital service models, such as telehealth.
Consumers expect rapid response times, even when they know everyone else is trying to order last minute flowers for Mother’s Day. If they can’t get through, they’ll go somewhere else. The same can be said for any other seasonally-driven demand spike. To keep up, organizations or the business process outsources (BPOs) they rely on for contact center support need to be able to quickly scale to meet demand. Housing banks of desktops that go untouched for most of the year isn’t an economical approach. This creates a sweet spot for DaaS. Instead of closets filled with untouched laptops, IT can quickly and easily spin up the required number of virtual desktops that can be accessed from existing devices or an employee’s personal computer. When the spike subsides, the virtual desktops are spun back down and the organization isn’t charged or responsible for a resource that isn’t being used.
Digital service models (such as telehealth or online tax filing support) represent a different form of expansion, closely linked to the remote workforce trend. Consumers want this easier consumption model and will increasingly favor businesses that offer it. But in order to keep up, corporations need to figure out how to offer these services while making it profitable. Adopting a work at home, BYOD approach has been the most popular approach because it allows organizations to expand their hiring footprint to gain affordable access to licensed experts while not adding the overhead of additional office space, utilities and hardware acquisition and provisioning. The simplest way to realize these tandem benefits is to use secure virtual desktops.
The ability to quickly spin up desktops as needed also comes in handy during instances of mergers and acquisitions. To ensure the venture is successful, organizations need to sustain productivity, even as cross-company teams work to align processes, controls, data, applications, networks, etc. The nature of virtual desktops allows employees to access all the necessary applications and data they need to remain productive, under the umbrella of an organization’s security measures, from anywhere almost instantly. This decreases the traditional time to integration, a key pain point for many MA& deals.
Ultimately, the name of the game is being able to offer more, faster and with a high level of productivity, without adding a lot of overhead. Organizations that spend too much time on traditional desktop management are hindering themselves. Focusing on route tasks means IT teams are missing out on opportunities for innovation and aren’t tackling business-driving initiatives. In an increasingly fast-moving and competitive world, organizations can’t afford to misallocate time and resources or miss out on the competitive advantages offered by technology.
It’s Time to Revisit VDI
Technology advancements are converging with a cultural shift and expanding competitive landscape. That has created a perfect “right time, right place” situation where the need for the benefits offered by virtual desktops perfectly aligns with what desktop virtualization is currently able to offer. The trends aren’t likely to reverse and VDI technology and DaaS services will only continue to advance.
As workforces become more mobile and global, organizations are going to need to keep up in order to meet customer expectations of always-on support, accommodate workforce demands of mobility and to attract key experts and top talent that will give the company a competitive advantage.
The way people get work done has changed and with it comes an opportunity to reframe how we think about the technology and tools we equip them with. While VDI got off to a rocky start, as many new technologies do, it’s grown by leaps and bounds and is poised to provide the enhanced productivity, flexibility and IT management optimization that it originally promised – and that’s needed now more than ever.