VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure) is one of those technologies with more lives than a calico cat. Just when I think it’s dead, someone like Citrix or VMWare bring it back to life with a gusto rarely seen for an aging technology. There’s a lot of confusion over what VDI actually is, so let’s start with a simple definition from Margaret Rouse at SearchServer Virtualization:
VDI is the practice of hosting a desktop operating system (often Windows) within a VM (virtual machine) running on a centralized server. VDI is a variation on the client/server computing model, sometimes referred to as server based computing.
With a number of large companies making recent announcement in regards to VDI, I want to take a look at where the technology finds itself today. I’ll look at a few reasons why its adoption has been slower than anticipated, along with a few scenarios where Virtual Desktop Infrastructure makes sound financial sense.
VDI – Why the Slow Adoption?
A number of deep-pocketed thin client innovators such as Dell and HP have been investing in VDI for many years. Software companies like VMWare and Citrix have been doing the same. Amazon and Microsoft continue to make large investments in this space to the point one might wonder why VDI adoption hasn’t accelerated as many assumed it would. I recall attending a computing conference in Seattle around 2006 where speaker after speaker claimed how it wouldn’t be long before we’d ditch our desktop PCs for thin clients. Lavish promises to IT departments included greater control and security while reducing costs.
But VDI never really took off. Once IT started to take a closer look at what it takes to pull off a successful deployment, expectations were tempered. The cost/benefits required a much closer look.
HP offers a number of thin clients in the $300 to $700 price range
VDI has been successfully deployed at a number of large companies, but it’s largely been ignored by small and medium sized businesses. Let’s take a look at few reasons for the slow adoption.
Thin Client Costs: While desktops and laptops were coming down in price, thin client prices remained basically unchanged. That $1500 desktop from a decade ago might cost $600 today. Thin clients run between $300 and $600 and haven’t seen the large price drops of PCs and laptops. And mobile staff still need laptops for those times they are traveling and offline. So VDI only makes sense for those employees essentially tied to a desk, and the number of those employees is shrinking.
Server and Network Upgrades: Are you sure your current servers can handle running the number VMs required support the company? If not, you’ll need to invest in servers, racks and storage. The same goes for your network infrastructure that might handle today’s traffic, but VDI is going move a lot more data over those same pipes.
Staff Additions: VDI makes a lot more sense when you’ve already got a staff up and running to support your data center. If you’re a smaller company without that installed support base, the costs to implement could deep six the project from the start.
These are a few of the reasons for VDI’s slower than expected adoption. When the cost delta between a thin client and a PC was at least $1000, it made a lot more sense, especially on large installations where the savings could be reinvested in new servers and network upgrades. But the drop in PC prices has been steeper than expected, making VDI an expensive proposition for companies with fewer than 500 desktops.
VDI does make sense in certain situations though. Let’s take a closer look.
VDI still garners the support of many large hardware and software companies with more joining the fray each year. Both Dell and HP have seen a decrease in sales of traditional desktops and hope thin client sales can make up some of that lost revenue. Of course, Dell and HP can keep thin client margins razor thin knowing that most installations will require server and networking upgrades that come with healthy margins. I’m sure Cisco is keeping a close eye on this market as well as the provide the bulk of networking gear to enterprise companies.
So where does it make sense to consider a Virtual Desktop Infrastructure deployment? If your company falls into these three categories, you could consider VDI.
On-Premise Data Center: Yes, running your own hardware in close proximity to your employees helps a lot. When a router goes down at an office full of employees working on desktops and laptops, it’s an inconvenience for a handful of people. But when you have hundreds of virtualized desktops running over a single router, and it goes down, your entire company could be adversely affected. If you have built out a modern data center you’re in a good position to deploy the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure.
500+ Desktops: It makes no sense to setup VDI for two dozen employees no matter how badly you want to do so. Don’t do it. I’m hesitant to mention a hard number, but 500 or more desktops seems like the number where moving to VDI makes financial sense. This doesn’t mean you should move to virtualized desktops, but it makes sense to consider it.
VDI begins to make sense once you scale to 500 desktops or more
Staffing: If you run your own data center that support more than 500 employees, you probably already have the staff you’ll need to support VDI. This is often an overlooked requirement to a successful Virtual Desktop Infrastructure deployment because of the assumption that VDI essentially runs itself. That’s just not true, and you’ll need trained staff ready to help those who need assistance. A good MSP can advise you on options if your staff isn’t up to par on the latest VDI options.
If you’ve done your preparation and understand the hardware, software and staffing requirements to get VDI off the ground, you might benefit from implementing it. And the benefits can be substantial. Your IT staff might like Virtual Desktop Infrastructure because it allows employees to work from nearly anywhere they have an internet connection. This is often referred to as the “snowstorm solution” because it allows employees to use nearly any device to connect remotely.
Being able to use any device is also a win for both employee and IT. You don’t need to worry about standardizing on Windows or Mac because software solutions cover those as well as those using tablets. I don’t think we’ll see people running VDI off their Samsung Gear or Apple Watch, but who knows.