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Consider mobility, virtual desktop access before zero client rollout

It's important to consider mobile enablement and users' needs during zero client and VDI rollout. You might want to deploy tablets for mobile workers and thin clients for remote employees to give them virtual desktop access.

Zero client and VDI rollouts are not simply about replacing desktop PCs and laptops where they reside in the organization....

For VDI and zero clients to replace laptops, it is crucial that mobile workers have access to zero clients at any office locations they visit.

Part of a zero client and virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) rollout should be placing spare devices on every desk that is allocated to visiting staffers. Zero clients should be in meeting rooms and maybe even in staff break areas. Providing workers with virtual desktop access from any zero client enables them to work in ways that previously may not have been practical.

While zero clients enable mobility among zero client devices, there are no mobile zero clients. This reality may feel limiting to workers who are used to carrying their laptops to meetings.

Potential problems: Mobile enablement, employee training

You might want to combine a mobile enablement project with the zero client and VDI rollout. You can set staffers up to use tablets and smartphones as the mobile portion of their computer use. For more fixed work, employees can get virtual desktop access through zero clients.

More in this series on zero clients

You're reading part three

Part one: Zero client configuration doesn't allow special snowflakes

Part two: Planning for zero client firmware updates

Tablets are often better suited to use in meetings, so deploying tablets at the same time as VDI may bolster user acceptance. In some cases, the tablet can supplement the zero clients as a method for users to access their virtual desktops. Every VDI product has clients for tablets that are suitable for brief access to a VDI desktop.

A crucial part of any rollout is training. The majority of that training should be around the new operating system and desktop that users will access from the zero client. Make sure the training emphasizes the ability to move among zero clients without closing and reopening applications.

Be sure to show people how to disconnect from their desktops when they are finished using a shared zero client. This helps to avoid security problems with other staffers using a logged-on session after the user has finished and walked away.

Zero clients outside your network

In some VDI deployments, zero clients are placed outside a company's offices. Sometimes this is done to allow employees to work from home; other times it's to enable business partners to access a corporate desktop.

When a zero client is deployed beyond a company's network, it can become harder to manage. Most central management consoles are designed for use inside a single routed network, rather than across the Internet and through firewalls. In these cases, you may need to implement a rolling refresh policy in which a user swaps out a zero client with a freshly configured one every few weeks or months.

Because zero-client firmware doesn't change as frequently as a general-purpose OS such as Windows, you might be able to forgo updating zero clients once employees take them home. To avoid physically swapping zero clients in an upgrade or not upgrading them at all, you may want to use thin clients for remote workers. Some thin clients are designed to let you manage them over the Internet, and they may be a better choice than zero clients on a network that you do not own.

Downsides of zero clients

The simple structure of zero-client computing is its greatest strength, but that same simplicity comes with tradeoffs. A zero client doesn't usually support wireless LAN, 3G/4G or virtual private networks. It isn't typically formatted for mobile devices. It simply can't do everything that more traditional desktops can do. An organization needs to accept these differences before committing to zero clients.
One indication that a zero-client and VDI rollout is going poorly is an upswing in demand for laptops. A good virtual desktop and zero-client rollout will reduce the need for laptops because users moving from one office to another will use zero clients at each site instead.

If there's more demand for laptops, it may be because your zero client and VDI setup is not meeting user expectations. View these requests as warning signs that you need to look again at user requirements.

Ensure that the zero client and VDI systems are meeting requirements -- and not just in the abstract -- because actual worker usage may turn out to be different than what you expected.

If you treat zero clients as appliances, they can provide years of service with minimal management. A good zero-client deployment is invisible to users; they simply see their own desktops on each zero client they use. Consistently configured zero clients can achieve the invisibility that is the core of an effective IT infrastructure.

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This was last published in July 2014

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