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Considering VDI? Prepare to master layering

VMware and Citrix VDI only go so far. IT pros must add user profile layers, application layers and more to create a true desktop experience through virtualization.

No VDI suite includes everything necessary to deliver all the elements IT pros need to provide virtual desktops, so administrators have to layer in other technologies to fill the gaps.

It is a necessary evil in VDI environments that's maddening for desktop admins, but there are some products that make it simpler to accomplish.

The problem is that VDI software suites, such as VMware View, don't have all of the components their customers need to deliver virtual desktops to all types of end users. So, companies interested in moving from PCs to virtual desktops using VDI have to buy third-party products to get the job done.

"We are taking things that aren't meant to be virtualized and virtualizing those things saying, 'Hey, aren't we cool,'" said Kipp Bertke, IT manager for the Ohio Department of Developmental Disabilities (DODD). "But to make it work, we have to do a lot of ‘hodge podgery.’ It's tough."

For instance, a company that adopts VMware View 4.6 may want to virtualize some applications, so they'll need a tool for that. If they want to provide personalized desktops to end users, they also need a third-party user persona management product, such as Liquidware Labs or AppSense, plus a storage management tool for storage layers, such as Atlantis Computing.

And since the proprietary management tools that come with VDI products do only so much, IT may need to add software that monitors how well it all comes together, such as Xangati VDI Dashboard.

"We bought VMware View and figured we'd ThinApp everything and all would be good. But you can't ThinApp everything in the corporate world," Bertke said. "If you have a call center and all you need to do is stream, View is fine. But if VMware thinks its product will do VDI right out of the box for companies with productivity workers, they are wrong."

Bertke invested in add-ons, including Unidesk Corp. software, to manage the user profile layer and applications. He said even if VMware builds-in profile management to View 5 this year, he'll stay with Unidesk because the built-in profile management won't offer as much functionality.

Citrix's VDI offering XenDesktop already includes a rudimentary profile management component that customers say is lacking. So, Citrix shops commonly use third-party persona management tools, too.

The art of layering
Ken Fanta, IT director for the Department of Orthopedics and Rehabilitation at the University of Wisconsin, switched to a virtual infrastructure to migrate 175 users off of Novell/Groupwise to Microsoft Windows a couple of years ago. That's when he learned VDI alone doesn't cut it.

First, not all users have the same performance requirements. Many of his organization’s users run graphics, videos, flash drives and X-Ray related software, and VMware View desktops didn't perform well for those users, even with PCoIP, Fanta said. "PCoIP made it better, but performance still wasn't anywhere near where we needed it to be."

Fanta didn't want to give up the desktop management benefits virtual desktops afford, so, last year, he sought add-ons and bought Wanova Mirage.

Wanova's Mirage virtual workstation software runs directly on end user hardware within the OS layer, and when the software is installed, it automatically divvies up the desktop into six logical layers that are managed by IT on the backend. So, you have a core OS image and the bottom layers are corporate controlled, the drivers are separated out, and the departmental apps can be separated out, as well.

Fanta now uses Wanova for virtual desktops running on HP laptops, and he only uses VMware View as backup for local desktops. For the user profile layer, he bought AppSense's profile management product.

Of course, he'd prefer it if VMware or Wanova included user profile management software, because managing multiple layers separately isn't ideal. "But it is the nature of the beast," Fanta said.

Meanwhile, software vendors selling these add-on layering products say this is an ideal way to deliver virtual desktops -- more efficient than the single gold image PC method. In some ways, it is.

The benefit of separating desktop layers and delivering them virtually is that IT administrators can change operating systems without touching other layers and control which applications are delivered to which user's desktop. With Wanova’s approach, IT has one copy of each layer to manage on the back end, and when it's time to replace an OS or an application, only the pieces that don't already exist on the client device are sent down to end user devices. End user profile layers can also be managed separately from corporate OS and application layers, and each layer can be backed up individually, making rollbacks easy.

The Ohio DODD uses Unidesk to manage user data and application layers based on Active Directory policies. So, they deliver Microsoft Office as part of an application layer for persistent users, but non-persistent users whose virtual desktop settings are discarded after each use don't need Microsoft Office -- they use Outlook Web Access. By delivering Office in layers based on user policies, the DODD cuts down on installed Office license costs and management.

At the same time, you can add too many layers and end up with an overwhelmingly complex environment. It's a balancing act between what companies truly need to add to their VDI environment and what they can live without, Ohio DODD's Bertke explained.

"You can easily end up with layer sprawl, in the same way you can end up with VM sprawl," Bertke said. "We are trying not to go crazy with it."

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Bridget has a great point regarding balancing the number of layers, which is equally valid for both Server-Hosted VDI as well as Client-Hosted VDI. When using Client-Hosted VDI, another useful approach is to create separate isolated environments for the user. One can be fully locked down (may have Outlook or other critical corporate applications there), and another can offer more of a sandbox where users have more flexibility to install their own apps. This offers an added level of security to prevent a bad application or malware from damaging key corporate assets.
-Sham Sao, Virtual Computer
I want to add that there's no "one sized that fits all" solution. If you like the idea of using the in-the-box stuff, consider which uses Group Policy to deliver applications' settings and keep things consistent. Nice alternative to those "big systems".