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Avoid making this desktop virtualization mistake

User personalization is crucial for end user acceptance. Columnist Brian Madden warns against taking someone's "real" desktop without giving them back something easy to use.

For the past three months, I've written this weekly column discussing how desktop virtualization can save you money. We can probably summarize the last ten columns like this: The reason you can save money with desktop virtualization is because you can manage all your users as if they only had a single desktop. In other words, just manage one desktop instead of hundreds or thousands.

This is great in theory, and this is great from our bosses' perspectives. Unfortunately, this is horrible from our users' perspectives. Unless all of our users want the exact same desktop wallpaper with the company logo on it, it's likely that some users will be unhappy.

Even worse is the fact that user "personalization" is more than simple vanities such as desktop wallpapers or dinosaur cursors. In many cases, users need access to software applications above and beyond what we in IT decide to provide in the shared "base" disk image.

Quite frankly, this is one of the biggest problems with desktop virtualization today, and it's one of the "inconvenient truths" that a lot of vendors pretend doesn't exist.

For example, most desktop virtualization products start with a shared baseline disk image for all users, but as soon as the user logs on, their individual Windows session is customized on-demand just for them. In doing so, IT can save money by having all users "share" the same base image, while these run-time customizations ensure that each user gets his or her own personal environment.

Or so the big vendors will have you think.

The reality is that there are two MAJOR limitations with this concept:

First, only the basic "personality", such as the desktop wallpaper and mouse pointer choices, is stored in the Windows roaming profile. Many changes a user makes, including every change that's made outside of their profile root folder, are not captured and saved via the Windows profile engine simply because the Windows profile subsystem doesn't even know to look for them.

The second major limitation is that these "shared base" image solutions do not support what's now called the "user-installed application." In other words, the only applications that are delivered into the shared base image are those that the administrator has specifically prepared. So if a user needs to use an application that IT didn't install, then that user's out of luck!

It's easy for admins to ignore this, thinking "if I don't install the app, they shouldn't be using it," or thinking that the only "user installed" apps are things like file-sharing and Twitter clients. Today's reality is much different, however, and most organizations have countless apps that are absolutely critical, even if IT doesn't know everything about them.

Fortunately, both of these problems are solvable. There are now many products on the market which fully and eloquently solve the "user personality" problem, including stuff from AppSense, RES Software, triCerat, RTO Software, and Scense. And there are just now starting to emerge vendors who are solving the "user installed apps" challenge, including Virtual Computer, Atlantis Computing, Mokafive, and Viewfinity.

Companies can be successful with desktop virtualization today. Just keep in mind that if you take away someone's "real" desktop, you're going to have to replace it with something that's just as easy to use, even if that means spending a few extra bucks on some additional tools.

Brian Madden, Independent Industry Analyst and Blogger
Brian Madden is known throughout the world as an opinionated, super technical, fiercely independent desktop virtualization expert. He's written several books and over 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Brian's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. Brian is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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