Tony Lock, originally published on The Register
We have taken a look at how desktop virtualization solutions are being used and their potential for future deployments. Comments on the topic are extensive, full of practical experience and, on the whole, fairly positive.
But before rushing in to consider the feedback in depth, one respondent did make a fair point when stating “First off Define Desktop Virtualization”. This is indeed a challenge with many vendors all leaping on the terminology but using it in association with a wide range of technically different solution architectures.
For the purposes of discussion here, we will consider two broad categories:
- Client partitioning, in which multiple virtual machines are executed locally on a single client PC
- Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), in which, through whatever mechanism, the desktop software is managed and/or executed centrally via your server infrastructure.
Starting with client partitioning, your feedback goes some way to validating some of the claims made by vendors in terms of where desktop virtualization has already garnered some success. In brief, these are summarised by one respondent as:
Having multiple development configurations that I can snapshot & roll back without having to uninstall & reinstall various bits of software / versions all the time.
Having a reference baseline build that I can quickly replicate to build new clean development instances without starting from scratch each time. Just by copying a few files.
Running a corporate standard desktop on a non-standard laptop build – ie running XP on Linux.
Having a throw-away windows sandbox machine that can be used for dodgy software / media downloads and then totally erased from disk after to eliminate viruses etc.
But perhaps the advantage that came through most strongly was in terms of ’flexibility’ to run software on whatever physical platform may be wanted. For example, another respondent mentioned it being possible to employ “Linux as the host OS while allowing me to continue to use the Windows apps I want – Microsoft Office, Toad for Oracle, Photoshop and more. Plus it allows me to use all those USB peripherals I have that don’t work properly under Linux. My mobile phone, for example.” He then made the valid point that “Having lots of RAM is important of course”.
In terms of context, the relevance of desktop virtualization in the form of client partitioning in the development organization was pointed out by several respondents. One said “As it is, I have just one PC and simply boot into whichever VM in whatever configuration I need. Brilliant stuff.” another added: “Anyone that has to do testing and validation of multiple browsers, VMs are about the only reliable solution.” I am not sure that this is entirely accurate, but it is a well made point of use.
Moving on to VDI, one of the first benefits highlighted was the potential for increasing the levels of security that can be achieved, especially with regard to the data that can be found on most laptop machines. One line of reasoning around data governance will ring some bells, for example. His statement of “[use] thin client to know where your data is” reinforces one of the benefits that have been proffered for desktop virtualization solutions over much of the past decade by organizations such as Citrix among others.
Another went further, combining security and ongoing support together: “Nothing should really be written to local hard disk for users and profiles should be network based. With all this in place, upgrading a machine to a new version should be near as simple as copying the image to the machine and off you go. It gets round a myriad driver updates issues for diverse machines (as long as they run the hypervisor), and any ’machine corruption’ is a case of drop a fresh image in, and all’s good.”
In car VDI
Perhaps the most intriguing example of flexibility was brought out by another annonymous respondent. And after seeing why, you can understand the anonymous nature of the comment: “In a traffic jam I’ve done ’in car VDI’ with 3g dongle and Asus eee. I didn’t have much screen, but I was productive (read ’billing’) and not sat in a jam losing money. Good for the client, good for me. If you work 1 hour’s drive away from home and you’re on call, you can pull in anywhere and connect so long as there’s a PC. I can take the kids to the zoo AND do that 10 minute failover test that no one not on VDI would volunteer for on a Saturday afternoon.”
Respondents also gave examples of other explicit advantages available, especially in the area of the ongoing support of users. Benefits mentioned range from “Running applications that are only functional on older operating systems” through to the utilitarian, but extremely satisfying “SAVE DAYS OF TIME AND EFFORT”.
In terms of more general benefits, someone gave yet another possible angle when highlighting the ability to “bring my own home laptop, and connect safely to the company environment? It would be similar to using my own pen and paper or car to get a more pleasant writing/driving experience.”
Now while this may not appear to be very important, this is in fact extremely profound. Over the lifetime of PC usage in business end users have become used to regarding their work machines as the ’personal computer’ of the early days of IBM marketing. And this attitude has caused many previous attempts at managing or regulating desktop usage by IT staff to run into extreme user resentment or hostility. By giving users the comfort of having their own machines with corporate virtual systems running on them may overcome some people barriers to making IT support affordable.
But in the interests of balance, we must point out that not everyone is entirely won over by the case for desktop virtualization. One anonymous respondent stated: “I use a virtual desktop, and I hate it. The performance is terrible – sometimes it can take 20 seconds just to repaint the screen. I have a VM which is configured with 512mb, which is pathetic (and my *real* machine has 2gb!).” Could this possibly be a case, as a couple of later comments said, of either inappropriate use of desktop virtualization, or simply just a matter of poor configuration by not giving the system the RAM it needs?
Another anonymous respondent went on: “I cannot understand why anyone wants to foist this charade on users (I write programs on IBM mainframes – I know that TSO is almost, conceptually, similar to virtualization, but it works infinitely better). I have a real PC, which is reasonably powerful, but I am condemned to use it as a thin client to an underpowered server, giving me much less performance than I had before.”
On the whole, however, positive experiences far outweigh the negative ones, certainly if the feedback from Register readers is anything to go by.
To finish off, we got a great tongue-in-cheek comment from one respondent who pointed out that some potential advantages of desktop virtualization might lead to some unexpected consequences, especially if using the technology away from the workplace: “It does have one drawback however, instead of trying to fix faults themselves, the ease at which intra-family support (i.e. me) can sort things out means that the call goes out for every little problem.”
We’ve all been there, but if desktop virtualization can reduce the stress involved in telephone diagnosis of your mother’s PC problem as well as help within the business, that can’t be bad.