VDI vs. traditional desktops: How to get the best of both worlds

You can obtain VDI benefits -- such as application packaging, remote management and desktop access -- from anywhere for a traditional desktop environment. Here’s how.

A lot of people say they want the benefits of VDI, but are inclined to stick with "business as usual" PCs.

Some of the VDI-related features companies want are remote Windows applications, user environment management, encryption, single OS images, simple patch management and so on. Fortunately, all of that can be done in one form or another with the traditional desktops that every organization still manages. Here’s how:

TABLE OF CONTENTS
Applications | User environments | BIOS/Disk Encryption | Backup | Files anywhere | Remote Windows applications | Bare metal provisioning | Single OS images |
Remote managament | Patch management



 
APPLICATION VIRTUALIZATION / PACKAGING

This is nothing new, and most organizations are probably packaging or virtualizing applications already, especially for Remote Desktops. Some solutions simply offer packaging and deployment of applications, while others can fully isolate them. Your needs will be different from the next company's, so check out solutions that use Microsoft Systems Center Configuration Manager and App-V, VMware ThinApp and Citrix XenApp Streaming (if you already have XenApp),  along with offerings from Flexera, InstallFree and many others.

 

 
USER ENVIRONMENT MANAGEMENT

Another desktop management issue that people have been dealing with for ages is the user environment. Call it what you want -- user personality, user virtualization, user environment management -- it all falls under maintaining the appearance and functionality of your users' desktops and applications on whatever device they happen to be using. Many folks look to VDI as a way to help them get started down that path, and while VDI solutions are starting to incorporate more and more user environment management features into their base packages, AppSense, Immidio, RES, Scense and triCerat all have their own solutions that will work just as well on traditional desktops.

 

 
BIOS / DISK ENCRYPTION

BIOS/disk encryption is a bit tougher to get because it's not an inherent solution in PCs like it is with VDI. Encrypting the data in your VDI image is fairly easy because the data and the image live in the data center. To get the same level of security with traditional desktops, it takes more software.

Enterprise versions of Windows (since Vista) include BitLocker, which, combined with a compatible BIOS, can be used to encrypt the contents of a drive. If that's not exactly what you're after, there are dozens of encryption packages out there to accomplish the same thing.

 

 
BACKUP

Backing up traditional PCs isn't the same as VDI, but it is possible to make PC backup easier than what you do currently.

With shared-image VDI, backups involve nothing more than user data that you're probably backing up with an enterprise backup solution already. That means that backup isn't necessarily a gotta-have-it feature in all VDI instances.

However, if you're like most organizations that use personal or one to one virtual machines in your VDI, backing up each individual VM may have some importance to you. Of course, this is fairly easy since you simply back up the file or files associated with the VM. But in the traditional desktop world, that's a little harder.

Backing up traditional PCs can be done with enterprise backup products like BackupExec or with solutions built in to your storage system, but that might be overwhelming. You could also take advantage of online services like Mozy or iDrive that offer real, agent-driven, scheduled backups to the cloud. This also means that PCs can be rebuilt on-site without shipping the box around.

 

 
FILES ANYWHERE

With virtual desktop technologies, such as VDI and Session Host (Terminal Services, Remote Desktop Services, etc.), you can access your files and apps from pretty much anywhere, any time.

With traditional PCs and laptops, that hasn't always been possible. VPNs do the trick, but they're usually a little cumbersome. Thumb drives and such are a huge security risk, so they're usually avoided.

Now, though, we see more and more cloud-based services, like Dropbox and Box, that give you storage in the cloud. So, now you can securely access all of your data from any device, and it doesn't have to all be located in the data center to do it securely.

 

 
REMOTE WINDOWS APPLICATIONS

This one is sort of a no-brainer to have on the list, but it's worth mentioning so we don't lose sight of it. Ultimately, everything we do is about getting applications to the user, and the two methods that have been around the longest are traditional PCs and server-based computing. If you're managing a traditional desktop to the best of your ability already, in many cases it makes sense to simply go about business as usual and deliver new or appropriate applications via server-based computing. The data and execution are still happening in the data center just like VDI, and the management can still be centralized.

 

 
BARE METAL PROVISIONING

This may be obvious, but if you think about it, you've been doing bare metal provisioning of your desktops for as long as there have been desktop computers. Imaging systems -- like Ghost or Acronis TrueImage -- can be considered bare metal provisioning options, just like automated solutions, like Altiris. Then, there are solutions that stream the OS, like DoubleTake Flex, which can leave the image persistent or wipe it each time.

No matter your use case, you should be able to put together a solution that meets your OS imaging needs to gain some of the benefits that VDI admins have.

 

 
SINGLE OS IMAGES

An extension of bare metal provisioning is single OS images, which people have been using on traditional PCs for years via a process called "driver loading." The practice involves installing all of the drivers for all different machines in your organization into one image so that when the image is deployed, all the necessary files and drivers are there. Some would argue this isn't a good practice, but enough people do it that you could at least try it out in your environment. Even if you end up with two or three images for different types or generations of desktops, that's still more streamlined than the norm.

 

 
REMOTE CONTROL MANAGEMENT

One of the perks of VDI is being able to take remote control of end user's desktops, which is also something that desktop management teams have been able to do for many, many years.

Solutions like GoToAssist, LogMeIn, DameWare, Microsoft Remote Assistance, pcAnywhere and a slew of other products have more or less solved this for everyone. Some even integrate into other management tools to make it that much easier.

 

 
PATCH MANAGEMENT UPDATES

VDI vendors boast that you only need to update one master image, but that's only in shared-image VDI instances where all of the apps outside of the base image are virtualized.

In any layered or personal (one to one) VM environment, you're stuck managing patches and updates in the same way you've been doing it for your traditional desktops.

If anyone doesn't believe that, consider this: VMware recently acquired Shavlik Technologies, makers of HFNetChk, which is one of the most popular hotfix and patch management solutions in the world. Would a company that makes a VDI solution need a patch management company if all you had to do was update a single image?

If there are one or two features of VDI that appeal to you, but not enough to justify moving to VDI, there are ways to add those features to traditional desktops. That said, if you deployed a package to solve each one of these features, you might end up spending more than it would cost to deploy VDI -- not to mention all the headaches from having eight different management consoles to worry about.

If you do choose to stay with "business as usual," you are not alone, and there's nothing wrong with it. Just keep in mind that there are many solutions with roots in the desktop virtualization world that can help you in the traditional desktop world, too.

Read more from Gabe Knuth

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Gabe Knuth is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as "the other guy" at BrianMadden.com. He has been in the application delivery space for over 12 years and has seen the industry evolve from the one-trick pony of terminal services to the application and desktop virtualization of today. Gabe's focus tends to lean more toward practical, real-world technology in the industry, essentially boiling off the hype and reducing solutions to their usefulness in today's corporate environments.

This was first published in July 2011

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