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How to create personal virtual desktops with nonpersistent VDI

User personalization can be hard for IT to deliver on nonpersistent virtual desktops. Layering VDI can provide the perfect amount of customization and security.

Just like a craft beer enthusiast is inclined to pick a hoppy ale, IT pros tend to prefer nonpersistent desktops...

whenever it's on tap.

Nonpersistent virtual desktops can make IT's job easier because they reset to a pristine state after each session. Still, users expect to be able to create personal virtual desktops at some level, at least, so they can customize their experience to their liking.

Why not serve up roaming profiles?

IT administrators often choose roaming profiles to give users some level of personalization on nonpersistent desktops. Roaming profiles save users' personalizations to the profile itself, which resides on a network share, not on the virtual desktop.

They might not be perfect, but roaming profiles usually meet users' needs sufficiently. Roaming profiles only retain data and configuration settings normally stored within a user's profile. As a result, any changes users make to objects residing outside their profiles are lost when they log off.

Roaming profiles can also cause the logon and logoff processes to become excessively long because the number of data files weigh down the network. As a result, roaming profiles are not always an ideal option for larger companies with numerous employees.

Layered personalization flows smoothly

One good alternative to roaming profiles is layering. Layering is a form of operating system virtualization where the virtual desktop operating system is carved up into a series of layered virtual disks.

Layering virtual disks for VDI deployments isn't all that different from the way Docker containers work. Containers share a base OS image that acts as the kernel for every container based on the image. As such, the containers themselves do not contain a full OS copy. Instead, they contain only the items they need to run the containerized applications, such as application binaries and registry entries.

The software that handles the layering needs to fully support the desktop OS.

Layering a personal virtual desktop involves two or more virtual disks for OS-level abstraction. Collectively, these virtual disks provide all the resources necessary to run the desktop operating system and any required applications.

How to pour the layers

The lowest layer of the layered disk stack contains the desktop operating system. Depending on which vendor a company uses, the next layer might contain the applications IT needs to make available to every user. There might be one or more layers dedicated to applications that are not made available to every user. Users in an organization's finance department, for example, might need access to a payroll application, but that is not something every user needs access to.

The top of the virtual disk stack contains one or more personalization layers. Personalization layers capture any customizations the end users put in place to create personal virtual desktops. These personalizations might exist within a single layer, or the software might split user personalizations into two layers: one layer for user installed applications and a separate layer for user customizations.

Does layering have all the hops?

Unlike user profiles, layering can capture and retain all of a user's customizations, not just those within the user's profile. Another advantage to this technique is that the layers may be able to use storage snapshots because layering is usually based on virtual hard disks. If a user makes a change that ends up causing problems, then admins may be able to use snapshots to roll back that change without affecting any of the other layers in the process.

The disadvantage to layering personal virtual desktops, however, is that the VDI software must be specifically designed to work with the operating system running on the virtual desktops. Many desktop operating systems, including Windows 10, were not designed to be broken into layers. The software that handles the layering needs to fully support the desktop OS so it can create the necessary layers without breaking anything in the process.

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Next Steps

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Keep VDI software and hardware in sync

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This was last published in June 2017

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