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VDI is more than a form factor change

Brian Madden contends that VDI is not a game changer -- it's simply a form factor change. Others disagree. Here's one VDI veteran's take on how it changes the desktop industry.

A recent article by Brian Madden has me scratching my head (and killing the little hair I have left). He states that "VDI is not a big deal" -- it's "not game changing" and "nothing more than a form factor change." I agree that the term "game changing" is unoriginal and well-worn, but it's a far reach to say that VDI does not change the landscape of computing.

To make my point, I'll purposefully concede to Brian's statement that VDI is nothing more than a form factor change. I'll also agree that the transformation from local host computing to VDI is similar to the transformation from desktops to laptops and therefore is a form factor change. I agree with these points because I can use them to prove that though VDI looks like a simple change, its impact is transformational.

Let's start with laptops. They completely changed the way we worked. When businesses were tied to clunky desktop PCs, so was employee productivity. The work-from-anywhere trend can largely be attributed to the proliferation and cost reduction of laptops.

One could argue that the Internet and virtual private networks (VPN) made this possible, but those of us with at least two decades under our belt (or above it as evidenced by my spare tire) can attest to the fact that we could be productive on a mobile PC even when disconnected and could get by with a dial-up [insert hissing sound here] when we needed to connect. In 1997, I diagramed an entire Novell NDS design from Sydney, Australia then dialed up to a local EarthLink number to upload it to my manager in Chicago on my laptop.

The work-from-home concept also became practical with laptop computing. Laptop users can immediately drop a task, put the laptop to sleep then hop in the car so that they can catch their child's piano recital, knowing they can continue their work at home. I would even argue that laptops were so game changing that it increased the divorce rate, as more spouses bring work home instead of dedicating home time to family time. Let the still-married-workaholics be honest for a moment. How many of us feel productive yet guilty at home because we can and do work as soon as we can squeeze in a few minutes to check emails, read documents and fill in that spreadsheet on our laptops?

There is another industry that can thank Toshiba, Sony, IBM, Dell and HP for its success: the coffee shop. Go visit a Starbucks or local coffee shop and reminisce about the last 10 years. Recall how many new coffee shops opened in your city over that period of time. As you do, think about how many of them were patronized by caffeine addicts with wide eyes staring at 13.1-inch screens. What was a haven for the writers, students and casual workers has now accepted business meetings and longer working sessions.

Take a look at the chart below of Colombia's economy:

I'm not an economic major, but I do wonder how much of Colombia's GDP growth from 2001 to 2007 was due to all the coffee beans purchased by coffee shops. OK, OK -- that may be a stretch, but I hope you get the point. (Juan Valdez may even be reading this article on his laptop because he created a Google alert for every time his name shows up in a search).

I could go on and on, but my wrists are hurting from typing on my laptop. Luckily, I can just transition my VDI session to my home computer so that I can take advantage of my cool keyboard instead of the one on this Dell laptop. Great! As I transition my VDI session to another system, I wonder, how will VDI transform the way I work the next few years?

Predicting how VDI could change how we interact with our computers requires some creative and inventive thoughts. Here are a few:

Thin-clients everywhere: As the cost of thin clients drop and features improve, I can see a world of commerce with thin clients everywhere. The coffee shop idea is an easy one. How about the grocery store? What if those self-service checkout lines allow you to login to your desktop in the cloud before you scan so that all of your transactions are entered into your personal finance software in real time?

Manufacturers become desktop delivery providers: With the longer life of thin clients (some of us have seen eight-plus years), users could adopt new desktops and operating systems without changing out hardware. That could radically change the business of PC manufacturers who depend on consumers upgrading every three to four years. They would creatively come up with new ways to generate revenue.

Test drive new experiences: Not sure about Windows 10? No worries. Just log off your desktop from the cloud and connect to the "Desktop Test Drive" section of your desktop where your provider offers the opportunity to run the newest version of Windows while still running your old applications. Like what you see? Just click "Accept." Not sure? Easily move back to your old desktop all from the same keyboard and display. You never know. Apple may even allow you to test drive the Mac.

So, while I have great respect for Brian Madden, I wonder if VDI is merely a form factor change, or will it be a game changer? Maybe both. I just hope I can keep my marriage and deal with my caffeine addiction while coming up with a great business idea that could leverage this new way of computing.

Eugene Alfaro
leads IT Engineering for Cornerstone Technologies, an IT engineering services firm in San Jose, CA. He has architected, managed and operated corporate IT environments for multi-national companies since 1998. He has been a speaker on topics such as virtualization, WAN optimization, enterprise storage, Voice-over-IP and others. You can follow him on Twitter @Eugenealfaro.

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This comment from the article is most telling: "Let's start with laptops. They completely changed the way we worked. When businesses were tied to clunky desktop PCs, so was employee productivity."

What happens when the thin-client user wants to walk out the door or do work in the park or on the train?

VDI isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It's riddled with limitations for end users - most users are not excited about having their PC taken away and replaced with a thin client.

Intelligent Desktop Virtualization is where the money is. IDV, unlike VDI, combined centralized management with local execution, so companies can get all of the benefits of desktop virtualization and users get better performance and mobility.
VDI is transformational because it is driving the centralization of images and single image management (of those images), but falls short because it comes at the expense of the datacenter CAPEX budget and at the sacrifice of user experience (among other things).

For example, you mention that laptops revolutionized the workforce by decoupling users from their desks. I agree completely. But from my perspective, VDI actually recouples users back to their desk via a new tether: an Ethernet cable. Now, I realize that VDI does not technically require an Ethernet cable and that VDI “can work” over wifi and other unsavory internet connections. I also realize that I could have my dentist fill a cavity without giving me Novocain first but that doesn’t mean it would be a pleasant experience.

It is also fitting that you referenced 1997 dial up in your article because that is how I’ve felt when using VDI- particularly over your average hotel wifi on my various travels. It is somewhat usable at best and a nightmare at worst. And the fact that VDI only has a chance at working well over a truly high-speed connection doesn’t even take into account its other potent flaws: the exorbitant capital expense costs required to implement it, the tiring exercise of fine tuning it to work in a distributed workforce environment for all users (local and remote), and the lack of power and customization that VDI end users are afforded.

And even if we continue to ignore all of those flaws we haven’t even gotten to the true Achilles heel of VDI and thin clients: the network as a true single point of failure. No network? No way to work. Period.
Tom. Excellent points and I totally agree. The performance of networks is an area we in the VDI community are keeping a close eye on. Latency challenges are real and must be addressed if VDI is to take off. A new breed of carriers like Masergy is leading the way of hopefully addressing that problem. My hope is that other carriers follow suit.

Thanks for the comment/feedback.
Considering that VDI has been around for more than 10 year in the form of Citrix terminal services, what is it that has changed so much recently that it suddenly is a big change?
Although I agree that access to VDI could change the way some people work I would say that is is only in the same way that Access to laptops changed the way SOME people worked.

Looking round my office for instance, (IT System support at a University) I'm the only one using a laptop as a desktop replacement, mainly because I have specialised software on it (Dragon, ClaroRead...). I have also been using Virtual desktops for >10 years now (Yes we had Vmware2) and the advent of ESX allowed me to take my "Sysadmin" desktop with me when I needed to assist a user.
But... Most of the staff here have no need to be able to work from Starbucks etc, They need to be in their office as they need to interact with people and objects, so for these people the abbilaty to move around is pointless.
Now on to what I took from Brian's article,
People are making too big a thing of the implementation of VDI.
Too much gets changed under the banner of VDI.
We have had a single XP "image" deployed to our desktops for 9 years now and with a university thats heavy on the desktops hats a lot of machines with a lot of variation in the hardware. This Summer we deployed Win7 (Single install). We have expanded the Application Virtulisation to the point that we have >200 virtual Apps & less <100 local installs. We wanted to implement User Virtulisation as well but the kit didn't come through in time.

And all the while Looking to "will this work with VDI?" and the answer is yes. Not only that it will make the transition easier when (or If) we go there. After all When Ive created a Virtual Application I dont care if its a Laptop, Desktop or a VM, I build it to work.

What is a bigger issue for us Is BYOC, Bring Your Own Computer.
That is a much bigger challenge, We can no longer predict what's on the destination machine. Students could bring Anything in and expect things to work...

So, My conclution is that , From a technical point of view. VDI is just a Form factor change. Once we get our Win7 deployment sorted with all the applications & user personality Virtulised we can migrate those that want it to VDI..

Hmmm.. Sounds like an Intel employee commenting..