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VDI benefits for enterprise desktop management come at a price

VDI benefits include simpler desktop management, flexibility and security advantages -- but all that will cost you.

If VDI performance still falls short of PCs, why should IT administrators go down the virtual desktop road?

Despite performance issues, which could decrease as vendor offerings mature, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) brings a number of advantages. Simpler enterprise desktop management is one of the tenets of VDI, providing IT a way to centralize that function.

"I can have thousands of desktops run off a single central image," said Gunnar Berger, research director of desktop, applications and server virtualization for Gartner. "Other products can do this, but [hosted virtual desktops] works in more use cases."

VDI does not save money.

Theodore Love, technology director, Phoenix Central Schools district

The ability to access desktops and applications from anywhere and on any device is one of the greatest VDI benefits for organizations with remote and mobile end users.

"You could argue that laptops do this, too. And you'd be right, but the ability to do this with follow-me desktop technologies means I don't have to carry one device with me; any device is my access point," Berger said.

Ease of desktop management and flexibility were reason enough for Phoenix Central Schools district in New York to adopt virtual desktops.

The school district's IT team needed a way to deliver desktops and applications to 3,000 users roaming between buildings and computer labs every day, so it deployed VMware View along with Liquidware Labs ProfileUnity software. Now, IT supports a pool of about 120 non-persistent virtual desktops (which don't store any user data or settings) that end users can access from anywhere on campus, said Theodore Love, technology director for the school district.

While VDI has allowed the school to deliver desktops in a flexible way that is simple to manage, the cost of desktop virtualization is significant.

"VDI does not save money," Love said. "Just look at the cost of storage on the back end and your budget is blown."

VDI costs, security up for debate

Indeed, VDI projects are expensive. Customers tend to only see VDI benefits in terms of operational expenses, not capital expenses, Berger said, at least not for the first few years.

Gartner estimates that total cost of ownership reductions of up to 13%, compared to well-managed desktops, are likely beyond year three of a deployment. The firm expects hosted virtual desktop capex will fall by 10% by 2014.

But companies that buy into VDI say the flexibility and enterprise desktop management benefits are worth the expense. VDI advocates also tout security benefits: Having data on the endpoint is a risk.

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Costs overshadow VDI benefits

Industries that deal with sensitive data, such as protected health information, are better off with a hosted virtual desktop (HVD) environment that keeps that information in the data center and off the endpoint device, said Berger.

In addition, with PCs, IT must protect data both in the data center and at the endpoint. Server-hosted virtual desktops eliminate the need to protect data in two locations.

That said, the security of virtual desktops is up for debate. Both PCs and virtualized desktops run the Windows OS, which would be identically secure whether virtual or physical, Gartner's Berger said.

"If there is anything I learned in my college courses it's that security is an illusion," Berger said. "No matter how hard you try to secure something, there is always something that makes it insecure. Encryption products only delay the inevitable."

Still, hosted virtual desktops make sense for some companies -- but not all -- and will be used alongside PCs, server-based computing, disk-streaming technologies and burgeoning cloud offerings.

"They each have their place. They each solve a problem," Berger said. "No single technology is going to replace the need for all other technologies -- at least not yet."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelhoor follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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