Cloud-based virtual desktops can cut costs, complexity

Cloud-based virtual desktops from Kaviza, Desktone and others have some benefits, but not everyone is convinced that this approach trumps on-premise models.

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Large enterprises can simplify desktop management with virtual desktops. But IT pros often shy away from this technology, fearing its cost and the complexity. There are ways, however, to virtualize desktops without the infrastructure requirements, if you trust the cloud.

There are many approaches to virtualizing desktops, and each approach has its tradeoffs. Cloud-based virtual desktops are a viable alternative to building an in-house virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), especially for companies that need to provide end users with some corporate applications and a Web browser but don't want to manage endpoints or back-end infrastructure, said David Bartoletti, an analyst at The Taneja Group, a Hopkinton, Mass.-based technology analysis firm.

"There are too many ways to deliver that in the virtual desktop market today, so customers have held off," Bartoletti said. "They are waiting for someone to step in and say, 'It's just a bunch of Windows desktops, it doesn't have to be that hard.' That's what the hosted desktop providers are doing."

The pros of hosted VDI

Robin Goldstone, IT project manager at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, said she was interested in both cloud and virtual desktops, but skeptical of those approaches. The desktop cloud model let her try out both computing models without too much risk or expense.

Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory is a National Nuclear Security Administration facility and has extremely tight security, with restrictions on personal cell phones and the Internet access. Lawrence Livermore's lockdown policy has been a problem for some employees, who needed to access personal email or use social networking tools for work.

It is basically like having a sandbox, where our employees can check personal email and do external collaboration without risking the internal network.
Robin GoldstoneIT project manager, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory

"It was a choice between either having unhappy employees, who may leave, or giving them a way to combine work and life," Goldstone said. "And there is a business use case for social and Web-based tools, so we wanted to give our employees a way to use them without risking security."

Goldstone said she considered on-premise virtual desktops, but she didn't have in house expertise or the resources to invest in infrastructure within the timeframe in which she needed virtual desktops. Hosted virtual desktops enabled Lawrence Livermore to deploy virtual desktops without the know-how or cash required to build a VDI on premises.

The lab now uses a pool of Kaviza virtual desktops provided through tuCloud's Desktops on Demand service, which provides a fully managed and hosted virtual desktop environment that costs $29.99 per concurrent user, per month. The program is called Powered by Kaviza.

Like Kaviza, other virtual desktop software companies are offering their products as both in-house and hosted services. Austin, Texas-based Virtual Bridges recently began offering its KVM-based VDI product as a hosted package through partners such as Rackspace and IBM, which provides Virtual Bridges desktops for Panasonic.

Lawrence Livermore chose Kaviza because it integrates with existing platforms, and the remote desktop experience across the WAN performed well. It is also cost-effective, Goldstone said. The Kaviza desktops are based on Citrix's latest remote desktop protocol, HDX, and some employees say the hosted desktops are actually faster than the lab's desktops because they aren't behind a firewall, Goldstone said.

"It is basically like having a sandbox where our employees can check personal email and do external collaboration without risking the internal network," Goldstone said.

Dan Kline, a business manager at Massachusetts-based Sports and Physical Therapy Associates, moved from a server-based systems model to a services model because his company doesn't have a dedicated IT team to maintain its computing infrastructure. He is now testing Desktone Desktops as a Service, hosted through Rackspace, to reduce PC maintenance costs.

"We have 14 clinics, and the nightmare is maintaining desktops remotely, doing fixes and patches," Kline said. "We found ourselves always buying new computers for users and spending more than we wanted to."

Desktone recently launched Version 3.0 of its hosted desktop offering, which costs $1 per desktop, per day for the Professional edition, hosted by Rackspace. The cost covers Rackspace's service-level agreement, but it doesn't include the cost of Windows licensing, which customers have to own themselves.

Since Kline ditched most of his Microsoft Office licenses in favor of Google Apps, he doesn't have to pay for Windows licenses, and the $1 Desktone price tag is even more appealing. He also plans to move to thin clients, which outlive PCs and have lower power requirements.

In addition, Rackspace provides better redundancy and availability than the physical therapy provider could, Kline said.

"The ROI is very straightforward," he said. "You certainly aren't losing money at the Desktone price point, but the real value over time is not to have to buy PCs, CPUs and memory."

While Kline trusts Rackspace's infrastructure, security is a major concern in health care, so the data of patients at Sports and Physical Therapy Associates is not housed in the cloud. Instead, that information is stored on local servers, he said.

Cloud-based virtual desktop limitations

The virtual desktop as a service model offers clear benefits to some IT pros, but not everyone is convinced that cloud-based virtual desktops are better than on-premise models.

Jeff Moore, IT infrastructure planning manager at First Interstate Bank in Billings, Mont., is piloting both VMware View 4.5 and XenDesktop 4. He said moving to cloud-based VDI is too risky.

"Financial institutions are concerned about security of hosted applications, so hosted virtual desktops would be unthinkable," Moore said.

His other concern is performance; because cloud-based virtual desktops are delivered from a remote location over the WAN to end users, it can introduce additional latency. This is particularly problematic for companies based in parts of the U.S. with poor bandwidth, Moore said.

"If the VDI environment is hosted at the data center, you do not introduce additional latency, and latency is the biggest challenge to VDI," he said. "I can say without a doubt you would have to give each remote location direct Internet access, which introduces additional security concerns."

The Taneja Group's Bartoletti said cloud-hosted virtual desktops certainly aren't right for enterprises with special needs, such as high performance and video, it can work well for companies that need to deliver only basic computing to end users.

"For corporations that just want to deliver desktop apps and Web-based apps to employees, rather than running a VDI environment just for the traveling and remote employees, it's easier to use hosted desktops," he said.

Let us know what you think about this story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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