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Consider key factors in the physical vs. virtual desktop debate

When deciding between physical or virtual desktops, IT admins must evaluate the costs, look at their application requirements and understand their users' needs.

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Virtual desktop infrastructure has matured to the point that it is now a practical choice for many organizations. For some uses, VDI is clearly the best choice over physical desktops, whereas others may require a deeper look at its requirements and benefits.

A virtual desktop performs much like a physical desktop, except that it is centralized in a data center and streams to the endpoint. The endpoint can be just about any physical device with network connectivity.

When determining the go-forward strategy for physical vs. virtual desktops, IT administrators should consider a number of important items:

  • What are the business and cost considerations associated with virtual desktops?
  • If the definition of an endpoint changes, how will that affect how IT approaches application deployment?
  • How does VDI disrupt the way users work, and what is the downstream effect on how IT manages the infrastructure?

The answers to these questions differ based on the size, complexity and requirements of an organization.

Business and cost considerations

When VDI started out, some organizations attempted adoption without a clear understanding of the business requirements and cost. As a result, many of those early projects failed.

Business needs for VDI focus on security and centralization of resources, data and application licensing. Further, VDI may enable IT to end or at least lessen its support for desktop PC hardware, whether due to adoption of BYOD or by providing only basic endpoint devices.

Some business requirements clearly dictate that VDI is the right choice in the physical vs. virtual debate. For example, offshore application developers are a key use case because desktop control, security and centralizing code and testing processes is critical. Further, developers often require administrative privileges, and they must be able to quickly spin up a new virtual desktop in the event of unexpected behavior from an application.

It is a major change to how users work, and lack of acceptance may overshadow business and cost justifications.

On the other hand, a field engineer working in a remote area or a salesperson who travels frequently may not always have suitable or cost-effective network connectivity to be able to access a virtual desktop as a primary workspace.  

VDI is a compilation of numerous technical components. As a result, a major investment of resources—human and technology—are required for success. These components most commonly include a platform—such as Citrix XenDesktop or VMware Horizon—storage, physical and virtual servers, an image provisioning mechanism, a remote access security appliance and more. Cloud provider offerings may package some or all of these components, but still, at the end of the day, VDI is pricey.

Application requirements

Applications are the lifeblood of many organizations. Where traditional desktops are deployed, all users must plug into the corporate network when IT needs to install or update an application. Traditional application updates encounter issues when someone in accounting runs an end-of-quarter report that keeps open several applications or when another employee in marketing abruptly shuts down the computer to run to a meeting, for example.

VDI shines when it comes to application access and maintenance. Because applications are centralized, the user can access the same applications regardless of the endpoint device.

Further, application updates and any changes IT needs to make don't affect the device. They simply update the VDI image, and the next time the user logs in, new or updated applications become available.

User perspective

Users are resistant to change, and decisions regarding physical vs. virtual desktops should incorporate their perspectives. Because many users already access corporate email on their smartphones, the acceptance rate for BYOD and virtualized applications is typically high; users often want to take this one step further to include accessing business resources remotely.

But, if you have employees that are holding onto their computers, then some user education may be necessary before transitioning to VDI. It is a major change to how users work, and lack of acceptance may overshadow business and cost justifications.

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VDI should be easy for the user; however, a good user experience may require IT to undertake extra behind-the-scenes effort. Although rare, where numerous or complex peripherals exist, users may see negative performance effects. For instance, an old peripheral may not function properly with a newer desktop operating system. It may be necessary for IT to update older peripherals or write scripts to address manual user steps.  

Virtual desktops aren't the right fit for every organization. Business requirements, costs, applications and user acceptance are key criteria for making the right choice.

Next Steps

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This was last published in July 2017

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