Latest layering tools a boon to VDI management

VDI management tools that use layering are considered a godsend by IT pros who have tried other methods. Unidesk updated its layering tool this week.

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IT administrators who try to cobble together non-persistent virtual desktops with application virtualization and shared images often create a desktop environment that is too complex, or one that just doesn’t work.

But there are virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) management tools that simplify things for companies that need to deliver remote desktops and many applications. Layering is one approach that many VDI users vouch for. 

Matthew Kramer, director of information technology for Bernstein Shur, Sawyer & Nelson P.A., a multi-service law firm based in Portland, Maine, embarked on a VDI project last year with VMware Inc.'s View software to create persistent virtual desktop pools. He found that he needed additional management tools.

Everything in the layers just works together.

Matthew Kramer, director of IT, Bernstein Shur, Sawyer & Nelson P.A.

"There are a lot of road blocks in this environment, especially around profile management," Kramer said. "I needed to find the sweet spot of a platform that’s easy for IT to manage and provides a good end-user experience. We weren't willing to compromise on either."

The firm could have used View alone, but that would have meant managing different desktop images for all of the firms' different use cases, he said. Instead, they added Microsoft's User Experience Virtualization tool along with VMware ThinApp and a storage optimization tool, but decided that with so many pieces in the VDI puzzle, the management would still be too complex, Kramer said.

Unidesk Corp.'s layering technology -- to be launched during VMworld 2013 next week -- simplifies virtual desktop and application delivery. Its software packages applications, including hard-to-virtualize apps.

"With this approach, we don't run into compatibility issues where apps don't work together, which is an issue with application virtualization," Kramer said. "Everything in the layers just works together."

Layering also allows IT to patch and manage multiple virtual desktops via one Windows golden image, and includes a personalization layer so end users have their desktop settings when they log in. They can install their own apps on their virtual desktops.

Those capabilities are critical in a VDI environment where end users need personalized desktops, said Paul Kramer, an Information Systems Manager for Kawasaki Motors Manufacturing based in Lincoln, Nebraska (who is unrelated to Matthew Kramer).

"The problem with VDI is the number of images we would need to manage," he said. "Every department had different apps they needed; we didn’t have more than three instances where our departments would share an image, and there are about 12 departments."

He uses Unidesk layering in his persistent Citrix XenDesktop VDI stack to deliver all of the companies' applications and simplify management. Kawasaki's IT department has about 70 apps, --including legacy 16 bit apps -- all delivered in layers.

"When you consider all the Windows updates and application updates, we would be updating base images and rolling them out constantly," he said. "Now we can have one base image and layers for all the apps and settings."

This approach to VDI management can also make storage more efficient, because it allows for sharing of apps among multiple desktops, Kawasaki's Kramer said.

"You only have one version of Office that is shared among 50 desktops, for instance, so the storage is efficient and upgrades or security updates on say, Java only have to be done once, on the master layer," he said.

Another tool that helps IT manage virtual desktops this way is Liquidware Labs Inc.'s ProfileUnity, which recently launched a new FlexDisk feature to deliver personalized desktops from non-persistent VDI environments. The company also updated ProfileUnity to version 5.6 this month, with improvements and new features that include built-in configuration templates and more.

Other layering tools include VMware's Mirage, which became part of View Horizon 5.2 this year. That tool allows IT departments to use a single back end system to deploy apps, data and virtual desktops to end users, though it does not include features such as application layering that third-party tools provide.

Similarly, Citrix XenDesktop includes Personal vDisk that lets IT pool user profile data and applications centrally and deliver those apps as part of a personalized virtual desktop. It also has fewer capabilities than third-party tools from Liquidware Labs and Unidesk provide.

Unidesk 2.5 adds driver flexibility and more

Unidesk 2.5 brings better driver flexibilityso Microsoft and other companies can  deliver drivers  from multiple layers.

Before, IT was required to maintain drivers in the OS layer, or lock them into a single layer. This further simplifies application layer creation for complicated apps that contain their own drivers. It also allows for more flexibility to push layers to groups of desktops or individual desktops, according to the company.

Driver flexibility is a major improvement, Bernstein Shur 's Kramer said.

"We have some apps that install low-level drivers into the OS -- such as printer drivers for Adobe PDF -- so these drivers are now integrated into the desktop and you don’t have to figure out where the drivers are installed," he said.  

In 2.5, the layering conflicts that can result from having .NET applications -- such as Microsoft Word or Visual Studio -- and Office add-ins in multiple layers can be resolved. New repair functions also allow IT admins to automatically resolve conflicts between the user layer and IT-created application layers without wiping out any user data.

There is also a new power management feature to monitor and manage the number of spare desktops in a floating VDI pool that are kept powered on and available for use.

A CachePoint WAN Acceleration feature has been added for Remote Office / Branch Office VDI, which speeds up layer creation on secondary CachePoints that are accessed by Unidesk Management Appliance over a wide area network (WAN).  

The new version also supports the ability to create a large number of desktops across a cluster and  supports load balancing of desktops across hosts and CachePoints within a cluster. Load balancing takes into account both space available on the datastore and current desktop load on the CachePoints.

Before, administrators had to control load balancing themselves and had to be careful to not overload systems, Kawasaki's Kramer said.

Also in version 2.5, Unidesk appliances have better responsiveness to VMware vCenter outages and availability, and layered desktops can remain running when upgrading from one Unidesk release to the next.

Unidesk 2.5 is available now. License cost varies based on volume, but generally costs $100 per user or less. A free trial is available at www.unidesk.com.

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