2010 and the Fate of Your (Virtual) Desktop

Do you think that converting your clunky, maintenance-burdened physical desktop OS to a clunky, maintenance-burdened VM will save you some money? Think again.

Unfortunately, one of the trends that’s sweeping in with the new year is desktop virtualization, aka Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). I think that the idea of VDI is good but the execution fails miserably. The mere thought of “traditional format” VDI makes me queasy. Replacing a fat, local desktop operating system for a fat, network-based desktop operating system isn’t very appealing to me for some reason. I can’t quite put my finger on it. Oh, that’s right, I remember now—it’s the fact that it’s a bad idea. The hardware expense and the amount of bandwidth required are both too high for practical implementation.

There’s also the fact that you aren’t removing any component out of the support stream for currently accepted VDI compared to that of traditional desktop computers. You still have hardware at the user’s desk. You still have a fat desktop operating system sitting on a virtual machine instead of on your physical one. You still have to patch and protect all of those virtual desktops with antivirus software and antispyware software. And, unless you’re willing to lay out the money for a high-priced network infrastructure and very high-end virtual host server systems, your performance will compare favorably with stagnant pond scum on a calm day.

The Problem

Desktop computers are expensive to purchase, manage and maintain. They require constant hardware and software surveillance, user training, housekeeping and physical care (cleaning, cooling). The answer, to virtualization vendors at least, is VDI.

VDI’s remedy is to move the desktop operating system onto server infrastructure and centralize deployment, management and maintenance. Pulling the operating system away from the user minimizes the number of desk-level calls made by technical support representatives. Most of the maintenance performed by technical staff occurs on the server-contained virtual machine. Minimizing support costs by reducing the number of trips to the desk, calls to a help desk and hardware failures reduces the overall IT burden for companies.

The Dilemma

My problem with current VDI implementations is that they don’t save money and therefore don’t live up to the promise and hype. Ask any virtualizaton software vendor about virtual machine density and observe the resulting body language revealing discomfort and anxiety. Ask for a realistic, production value for virtual machine density and you’ll understand the dilemma. At five to eight virtual machines per host system, you’re spending more than you’re saving on this “money-saving” technology solution. When vendors can show a virtual machine density of 40 to 50 per virtual host system, the cost outlay is justifiable.

Part of the cost vs. performance dilemma comes from the fact that your current network infrastructure likely won’t support the amount of data needed for VDI. Gigabit Ethernet might work for you if it’s correctly designed and segmented but higher bandwidth is recommended (10Gb+). Low virtual machine density and high network bandwidth needs make current VDI implementations unreasonable. And then there’s the cost of the management software needed to manage your newly virtualized desktops. Unless converting your local desktop operating systems to VDI will result in cost savings, there’s no point in doing just to have your cool technology bragging rights.

The Solution

The solution for VDI is simple and far less expensive than you might think but it doesn’t use traditional virtualization techniques or vendors. Parallels has the answer: Containers. Containers offer a reasonable VDI solution offering low cost, high density in normal network bandwidth ranges (100Mb to 1Gb).

Best known for its work with ISPs, Parallels’ container-based virtualization holds your much sought after VDI solution. Whether you use Linux or Windows for your desktop operating system, containers hold the best solution for minimizing costs associated with moving your physical machines to virtual ones.

For those of you who still cling to a fat desktop virtual machine solution and one-to-one ratio for user desktops, then you should check out KVM. KVM offers that fat desktop and high performance that you require for bandwidth-hungry desktop applications.

Typically, when I hear the acronym VDI, I think of it as an acronym for, “you must be kidding” instead of its actual virtual desktop infrastructure. I cringe at the thought of how many pounds a company must spend in order to save a penny or two. There are ways to make VDI work for you but it isn’t based in traditional thought. VDI is a solution that requires creativity and some of that uncommon ‘outside the box’ thinking you hear so much about.

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