It may seem simpler to deploy local desktops, but organizations shouldn't rule out the benefits of desktop virtualization.
There are several methods that IT teams can take to enable desktop virtualization for end users, and each approaches the process of hosting differently:
- Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). This is a virtualization method that involves an organization hosting the virtual desktops in-house. VDI requires the organization to build its servers.
- Desktop as a service (DaaS). With DaaS, the organization pays an outside vendor to host the virtual desktops, with some providers handling aspects of management as well.
- Hybrid desktop virtualization. This is an approach to virtualization that involves some combination of VDI and DaaS, where certain components run on VDI but others are outsourced.
- Remote desktop. This is a service that enables users to connect to one endpoint's desktop OS from a separate endpoint in a different location.
Regardless of the method for delivering a virtual desktop, some key benefits are present for each approach. IT departments and executives who create plans for end-user computing should familiarize themselves with the benefits of desktop virtualization and how to make the most of them.
1. Centralized management
The most well-known benefit of desktop virtualization is that all desktop management occurs from a central location. Some organizations require users to restart laptops over a few weeks to apply a key update, download a new bit of software or add a new desktop configuration.
With virtual desktops, there is no such downtime. The end users don't have access to their desktops until they connect to the virtual desktop host, so any updates or software changes can happen during downtime. Often, IT teams push out these updates when the fewest employees are working, such as overnight or during the weekend.
For example, if an organization wants to deploy a new video editing application, its IT team needs to deploy that software. Once the users who need the latest software have logged off for the day, IT teams can alter the virtual desktop image for that user group to include the new virtual application. IT admins can get the virtual app up and running in advance and test it in a virtual desktop lab setting before deployment.
This process requires a hard reset of the desktop with laptops or PCs running local desktops. It may also cause compatibility issues for users who don't have the right OS version or have made some alterations to the desktop's base settings. This is not likely to happen with every instance, but there's a reason that IT departments try to test software and updates before deploying them.
2. Easier to scale and deploy
Deploying a new laptop or PC isn't as difficult as it once was. Zero-touch enrollment is now commonplace for many organizations, and numerous service vendors handle getting properly provisioned devices to end users. And yet, it's still simpler to spin up and deploy virtual desktops to end users.
Laptops and PCs with local OSes require someone to load an OS onto the endpoint, connect the user's work accounts, and ensure all required software is present and the desktop is connected to the organization's desktop management platform. For a virtual desktop endpoint, whoever provisions the device only needs to connect the user credentials and ensure it can connect with the desktop virtualization host.
Beyond the device itself, organizations don't have to wait for a bulk endpoint seller to get new devices with desktop OSes properly licensed and running on them. Virtual desktop OSes are much easier to create, regardless of what virtualization method an organization is using. If an outside vendor provides these OSes via DaaS, an IT admin has to reach out to the DaaS provider and ask to increase their subscription to take on more users. If an organization runs the desktops in its own VDI, IT teams need to make the changes on the back-end servers to ensure they have the capacity for the new virtual desktops.
3. Cost savings on endpoint hardware
Organizations can also benefit from the cost savings of virtual desktops. A virtual OS doesn't require a fully furnished endpoint running an OS that the organization must pay for. Further, thin clients can save organizations on hardware costs because these devices are stripped-down endpoints specializing in hosting virtual desktops. They rely mostly on peripheral devices to support user interaction with the virtual desktop and can be incredibly small and cost-effective.
Thin clients are much simpler for admins to manage, so they don't have to spend as much time working on them. And calculating labor hours is a key factor in understanding a technology's total cost of ownership.
Virtual desktops can also work for BYOD scenarios, another way organizations can save on hardware. If a user brings their own laptop, there's no need for any hardware purchase.
4. Accessible via a browser or desktop
Part of the reason that virtual desktops lend themselves to BYOD scenarios is that they can run within an existing laptop's OS. The virtual desktop can run in a sandbox within the desktop, ensuring that the security of the underlying OS doesn't threaten the work-related desktop session. The reverse side of this is that IT can prevent the proliferation of corporate data with the proper configurations.
This doesn't have to be the main virtual desktop workstation for an end user for it to come in handy. A user relies on a thin client while in the office, but on remote days, they could run the virtual desktop within a secure browser on a personal endpoint. This could also help if users need to travel, as it's much more convenient to pack a laptop than a thin client with numerous peripherals.
With the proper virtual desktop agent installed on any desktop OS -- or a secure and functioning browser -- end users can access their resources in various ways even if they don't have their usual workplace endpoint.
5. IT controls updates and versions of OSes, software and services
Ensuring that all desktops, applications and services are running their latest versions can bring peace of mind to IT teams. The uniformity of different versions improves the security posture of an organization's users and delivers new quality-of-life updates quickly to facilitate productivity.
Consider a situation with a significant vulnerability in a key piece of business software -- or even the desktop OS itself. Once there is a patch from the first-party vendor, IT teams must get it distributed as soon as possible.
With a PC or a laptop, IT teams may need users to restart their laptops as soon as possible to apply critical patches. However, virtual desktops take that burden away from the user. Instead, IT can apply the patch to the virtual desktops during off-work hours, and the next time users log on to their OS, they have the latest patches and updates.
6. Easier backup when major disruptions occur
Desktop virtualization enables IT to quickly replicate and recreate usable desktop OSes for end users. The need for quick backup can come into play in various situations, such as disaster recovery for large-scale and technical issues that a single user might be experiencing.
If a region's data center has an outage, a backup data center should exist at a separate physical location to help IT teams quickly redistribute the desktops. Organizations with a DaaS subscription should confirm via their provider that they can rely on options like this with the vendor, but this backup option is the industry standard.
Things get more complicated regarding VDI backup, as an organization must account for these scenarios with its own data centers and planning. But this shouldn't be a major issue for an organization that is large enough to consider deploying VDI, especially if it's an organization that spans multiple locations across the U.S. or around the world.
Consider a scenario where a user has issues with a critical business application or the underlying desktop OS. With a PC or laptop, that user would have to reach out to IT and hope they could successfully handle the issue by directly interfacing with it in person or via remote desktop technology.
In the office, IT could give the user a temporary laptop while it works on the user's usual endpoint. The user will likely spend a long time getting all their accounts signed in and ensuring they have all the necessary resources. But, if the worker is remote, it gets even more difficult. A user may have to log off for the day due to the lack of a suitable replacement endpoint.
A virtual desktop helps with all these acute user issues because IT could simply terminate the desktop instance and recreate it with all the resources, access and accounts the end user needs.
John Powers is senior site editor for TechTarget's Enterprise Desktop, Virtual Desktop and Mobile Computing. He graduated from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.