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VDI annoyances you can -- and can't -- easily overcome

Here's a look at some common VDI annoyances and ways to make the transition from physical PCs to virtual desktops smooth. Unfortunately, there isn't always a fix.

No one likes change, so moving from physical PCs to virtual desktops can be uncomfortable for both IT administrators and end users. But you can alleviate the pains of moving from the familiar world of physical PCs to virtual desktops by knowing what to expect.

Here's a look at the most common virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) annoyances surrounding administration, failover, latency, and user profile management, plus some ways to make the transition a bit easier. Unfortunately, there isn't always a quick fix, or any fix at all.

User Profiles
The average user wants a virtual desktop that looks and feels pretty much the same as a physical workstation, or if he has both physical and virtual desktops, he really wants them to mirror each other when they log in. This is where user profile management tools come in.

I always recommend implementing profile management software right from the get-go. If you wait on getting the profiles established and defined, it can turn out to be a much bigger process and more headaches for the users -- and you -- when you are deeper into VDI and have a much larger user base to contend with.

There are several good profile management products that can assist profile management and even take the user profile data out of Active Directory to simplify administration. Two products I've had very good success with are Immidio's FlexProfiles and AppSense. FlexProfiles focuses mainly on the profiles themselves, and AppSense goes much further with its Environment Manager package, making the user experience and back-end administration very solid and very easy to administer.

While some users easily adapt to change, most hang on to familiarity, so if their virtual desktops look much different than their physical desktops, you are going to hear some grumbling.

Over the past year or so, there have been many advances in the visual experience of virtual desktops. Examples include improved client protocol technologies (VMware PCoIP, Microsoft RemoteFX for RDP, and Citrix HDX), client-embedded devices, and data center graphics processing unit (GPU) involvement.

But these enhancements aren't enough, so many admins strip the "eye candy" from virtual desktops -- the Aero interface, fonts that occupy lots of real estate, transitioning backgrounds and other components that lead to excess overhead.

No matter the reason for removing the visually appealing parts of virtual desktops, end users still want the same look and feel that they have with their physical desktops, so visuals will continue to be a point of contention.

Speed -- or the lack of it -- is probably the most talked-about problem with VDI. If it takes users 10 seconds to perform a task on their physical desktops and 30 seconds to do the same task on a virtual one, depending on your parameters and acceptance of that measurement, you may have just lost the productivity war.

There are so many variables that can affect speed, from the back end to the front end of the environment, that I refer to it as the "black hole" of VDI.

Some ways to speed virtual desktop performance is by tweaking storage and networking. For example, you can implement faster Direct-Attached Storage and higher-capacity fiber. Or you can isolate traffic from servers delivering virtual desktops to the same network segments as the devices receiving the desktops, so they aren't mixed in with other bandwidth-hogging servers. Even the integration of client hypervisors such as Virtual Computer's NxTop, Citrix's XenClient and VMware View's Local Mode are proving to be very effective in increasing the overall speed of the virtual desktop.

Redundancy and Disaster Recovery
Unfortunately, redundancy and disaster recovery (DR) were things that VDI vendors left out of their feature lists when they developed their products, or they simply downplayed that it was even necessary. So many companies built virtual desktop infrastructures that have a single point of failure.

The vendors have stepped up and produced some products or workarounds to address failover, and virtual backup vendors are touting their products for VDI redundancy and disaster recovery. But administrators still have to be diligent and make sure that their virtual desktop environment is redundant.

Simply put, desktop virtualization vendors have to make back-end administration easier.

Having two or three different interfaces just to administer a complete VDI solution is not efficient or even reasonable. For example, XenDesktop requires a cluster of management consoles, and VMware View is only partially integrated into vCenter.

We are all looking for a way closer to that "single pane of glass" management view, and vendors need to step up and standardize their products to deliver that. Admins want an easy way to perform common management tasks, so standardized terminology and interfaces will go a long way to win our hearts.

Until then, administration complexity will remain one of VDI's biggest annoyances.

Mike Nelson has been in IT for over 20 years, with exposure to a very diverse field of technologies. He has devoted over half a decade to virtualization and server-based computing. Nelson is currently a senior analyst at a Fortune 100 company in the U.S. Midwest.

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