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Three essential skills for virtual desktop administrators

As IT pros prepare for 2010, some basic virtual desktop skills are often overlooked. Get up to speed on three areas of knowledge for virtualizing Windows desktops.

Want to be a better virtual desktop admin? Here are the three skills you need that your co-workers will skip.

Since it looks like 2010 is going to be a big year for desktop virtualization, a lot of people have been wondering about the skills they need to be great virtual desktop administrators or engineers. Another way of phrasing the question is, "I'm going to have some downtime in December, so I'd like to study up on some stuff. What's the most important stuff for me to learn to be the most marketable in 2010?"

It's best to focus on the core skill sets that most people miss.

First and foremost, remember that desktop virtualization is about virtual desktops. In other words, you need to be proficient with the operating systems of the desktops you're virtualizing.

Depending on your background, this can be tricky. Many IT folks start out their careers as lowly "desktop people" with dreams of moving "up" to the world of servers. That's all well and good, but when it comes to desktop virtualization, you need to stay "down" at the desktop level. And with the changes introduced in Vista and Windows 7, don't assume that your old knowledge of how Windows XP worked is still relevant now.

One effective way to get up to speed with the inner workings of the OS is to read the Windows 7 Resource Kit. I prefer the printed book version, although there's also a free online edition at the Microsoft Learning website.

So what's important to know about the Windows desktop OS?

I'd start with understanding how applications work. Learn about the Windows Installer service and how and where files are copied during installs. Learn about how side-by-side dynamic link libraries (DLLs) work, with Google for [WinSxS] as a starting point, and take the time to learn Microsoft's free Application Compatibility Toolkit. Also, it's probably a good idea to know your way around the Windows registry Knowing how apps install and how the registry works is crucial because you'll undoubtedly be virtualizing a fair number of apps, and you have to understand how they work before you can really learn how to virtualize them. Plus, you'll need to decide which apps to virtualize and which to embed natively in your base image, so an understanding of the underlying installer technologies will help you figure out which option is best.

Next, learn about the various Windows deployment options. Since most desktop virtualization solutions are built around master images and shared disks, you essentially "deploy" a new instance of Windows each time a user logs in. Make sure you understand all of Microsoft's deployment tools and technologies, like ImageX, DISM (Deployment Image Servicing and Management), WinPE and the Windows Automated Installation Kit. The Windows deployment team has a great blog on TechNet.

Finally, I'd spend some serious time learning about the underlying changes to security that Microsoft has implemented since Windows XP. You need to understand BitLocker (and how to turn it off), Address Space Load Randomization (ASLR), the revamped user account control, AppLocker and how domain joins work now.

Of course, expertise in these three areas won't make you a virtual desktop wizard overnight. And you still need "core" desktop virtualization skills, like understanding how hardware virtualization works and how printing and profiles work. But applications, deployment options and security changes are often overlooked, and knowledge about them will help you stand out in the fray of admins claiming to be experts.

Brian Madden, Independent Industry Analyst and Blogger
Brian Madden is known throughout the world as an opinionated, supertechnical, fiercely independent desktop virtualization expert. He has written several books and over 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Madden'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. He is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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