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Balance user needs and IT department policy using VDI personalization

The key to a successful virtual desktop infrastructure is not storage or security, but end-user acceptance. Learn how to balance the end-user experience with IT requirements.

The most important element for successfully rolling out a virtual desktop infrastructure system is the actual end-user experience.

While connection brokers, authentication systems, provisioning tools, management systems and delivery mechanisms are all very important, if there is significant pushback from end users, no matter how elegant the VDI project is, it is bound to fail.

The problem is usually rooted in the basic expectations for a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) deployment.

IT departments look at VDI as a way to reduce storage demands, enforce policies and have absolute control over the end-user desktop environment. Moreover, it is hard for IT departments to ignore the other potential benefits of VDI: faster rollouts, easier maintenance, reduced support needs, improved backups and a path to business continuity. VDI seems like a dream come true for some IT managers, who find it hard to believe that end users do not share the same enthusiasm.

The truth is end users have different expectations than IT managers, and those users can put up a pretty good argument for why VDI doesn't fit their needs. Today's end users have come to expect a certain amount of flexibility and control over their desktop or laptop PCs, and the typical VDI deployment eliminates those abilities.

So, can end users and IT managers can find common ground in VDI?

The answer lies with technology that allows end users to personalize their virtualized desktops, but still gives IT managers control.

However, personalization does not always prove to be a simple answer. There are several negatives associated with granting personalization capabilities to end users, including:

  • Increased storage: Each personalized desktop needs dedicated storage space.
  • Complicated backup: Each personalized desktop needs to be backed up.
  • Complicated delivery: Each personalized desktop needs to be assigned to a specific user.
  • Complicated upgrades: Upgrades must be pushed out to each personalized desktop.
  • Problematic security: Security policy, signature updates and settings must be pushed out.
  • Increased support: IT must now support multiple desktop configurations.

Simply put, granting personalization privileges in a virtualized environment reintroduces all of the problems most IT departments sought to eliminate by moving away from the traditional client/server PC paradigm.

In most cases, the cure turns out to be worse than the problem -- IT departments have turned to locking down desktops, creating restrictive policies and micromanaging the end-user experience to regain control and reduce support costs. While that works in theory, it usually reduces end-user productivity.

What's more, IT staffers often have to spend significant amounts of time addressing exceptions to the rule, creating custom deployments to meet the needs of specific end users who justifiably need more control over their PCs than the standard VDI desktop allows.

After looking at the challenges with VDI deployment, most IT managers are ready to leave virtualization out of the desktop equation. But such an omission ignores the real-world benefits that can be gained from a successful VDI rollout. The trick is not to just duplicate the end-user experience with desktop virtualization, but also improve upon it and garner user "buy-in" for the technology.

IT managers have to deliver the following to make a VDI project resonate with success:

  • Improve the end user's desktop experience
  • Allow secure access to a user's desktop from most any thin terminal, notebook or PC
  • Allow users to install any apps or plug-ins that are needed for their jobs
  • Offer continuous protection of user data, including "local" drives
  • Be able to fix a broken desktop within minutes, remotely
  • Offer remote support and perform upgrades offline

By combining the end-user benefits with the needs of the IT department, IT managers should be able to ensure the success of a VDI rollout and reduce the total cost of ownership (TCO) while improving the overall return on investment (ROI). There is no secret sauce that makes VDI simple, therefore IT departments must implement specialized desktop virtualization systems.

Luckily, several vendors have responded with tools that eliminate the problems of personalization, improve the end-user experience and deliver management benefits.

Four of these vendors are MokaFive, RES Software, RTO Software and Unidesk. While these vendors focus on delivering persistent personalization to VDI desktops, each takes a different approach and integrates differently.

  • MokaFive deploys a desktop using "virtual layers," a patented technology that divides the virtualized desktop into separately manageable layers. Those layers are reassembled on the physical desktop PC to deliver a virtualized operating system, which is fully manageable and supports user personalization.

    MokaFive's LivePC images contain an entire desktop OS and application stack that can be run online or offline. It can boot quickly on a PC, fit easily and securely on a USB flash drive, and update automatically over a network or the Internet. With its smart caching and predictive streaming, MokaFive can start up a customized virtual desktop to a Windows or Mac PC in the time it takes to boot a computer.

  • RES Software's product is based on the concept of workspace management. The company's RES PowerFuse enables IT professionals to dynamically compose and manage a personalized and secure workspace for each end user. The product works across application-delivery mechanisms such as Citrix XenApp, Microsoft Windows Terminal Services, VMware View (VMware VDI) and Citrix XenDesktop.
  • RTO Software focuses on creating, managing and delivering personalized profiles to a user's virtual desktop. RTO Virtual Profiles enables VDI users to maintain the same level of individual customization that they currently enjoy on their physical desktops. The product is geared toward solving three problems that user profiles in VDI encounter: profile integrity, system performance and user flexibility.
  • Unidesk offers Composite Virtualization, which incorporates management into a VDI infrastructure. Unidesk can disaggregate desktops into separately manageable containers for the provisioning, patching, packaging, versioning and rollback of operating system images. User-installed applications and data remain independent of the other containers.

Of course, the options available to provision personalized virtual desktops don't begin and end with the four vendors listed above. Other players, like Citrix, VMware, Ericomm and Leostream, provide tools and capabilities that can transform a static VDI environment into a personalized desktop experience.

But in most cases, those options are not complete solutions for managing personalization. IT managers should investigate if the personalization products they're considering are able to manage storage needs, have integrated support/help desk functions, can manage several versions of user-personalized desktops, incorporate backup technology, support connected or disconnected sessions, provide session continuity and support line management capabilities.

Frank Ohlhorst
Frank Ohlhorst is an IT journalist who has also served as a network administrator and applications programmer before forming his own computer consulting firm.

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