VDI is back to solve your remote-working woes

Lower costs, easier management, happier staff – what’s not to like?

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Sponsored The COVID-19 pandemic has had a seismic impact on organisations and the way they deliver IT services to their workforce. The imposed lockdown found many companies unprepared for a situation where employees were forced to work from home and scrambling to put in place solutions to enable them to remain productive and secure.

Among the technologies that organisations have turned to are online meeting and collaboration tools, VPNs, and virtual desktops. The latter has been around for years, but is seeing renewed interest from enterprises, not just because it solves the immediate problems caused by COVID-19, but also because it plays a part in wider strategies to transform the workplace. This was highlighted by a recent report from analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG), which found that while only 40 per cent of organisations currently use virtual desktop technology, at least another 25 per cent are on the verge of doing so, and current users have aggressive expansion plans.

Other trends have also been driving organisations towards virtual desktop adoption, including greater use of endpoint devices such as tablets and smartphones by workers, and the rise of public clouds as a platform for hosting and delivering IT services.

Virtual desktop platforms have been evolving for a long time, but the modern ecosystem largely breaks down into two rough categories, VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) and DaaS (desktop-as-a-service). VDI is for organisations that want to host the virtual desktops in their own data centre on their own servers and largely manage the whole affair themselves. In contrast, DaaS sees virtual desktops delivered as a cloud service, taking away the need for customer organisations to manage the infrastructure part.

According to ESG’s research, the majority of organisations currently operating VDI - roughly two thirds or 65 per cent - are operating this service using hyperconverged infrastructure (HCI). This is hardly surprising, since HCI evolved as an architecture specifically tailored for operating virtual machines, with simplified management and reduced total cost of ownership (TCO) compared to traditional IT.

A good example is VMware’s platform, which accounted for over 40 per cent of the hyperconverged market in the first quarter of 2020, according to figures from IDC. This combines vSphere with the vSAN software-defined storage layer and management tools such as vCenter Server.

However, ESG’s research showed that among potential future adopters of virtual desktops, the majority here (61 per cent) saw public cloud infrastructure providers as the most likely route to adoption. Again, this is hardly surprising since corporate uptake of cloud services continues to rise, and with DaaS among the portfolio of services now available, you would expect this to be the preferred route for those yet to take the plunge.

VDI or DaaS?

Why are organisations taking a closer interest in VDI and DaaS now? According to ESG’s report, the most common challenges that businesses have with traditional desktop and laptop systems are those associated with managing their software licensing inventory and ensuring compliance, closely followed by the high cost of procurement.

These are largely legacy challenges, but other concerns cited by organisations mostly relate to IT processes, such as keeping up with the rapid pace of change and the time IT staff spend on routine tasks, troubleshooting issues and helpdesk requests.

The most common benefits of VDI identified by users align well with those desktop challenges, with respondents in the ESG survey reporting reduced IT operational expenses from outsourced end-user support and simplified desktop provisioning among the top five benefits, along with improved support for remote or mobile users.

Perhaps not surprisingly, companies using DaaS report pretty much the same benefits, with the additional advantage that the shared responsibility model of the cloud largely removes much of the need for managing any physical infrastructure underpinning their virtual desktops. This enables organisations to focus more on the digital workspace and on user experience.

The ESG research also found that improving employee collaboration is one of the top priorities for organisations when building a workspace environment. This is another area where VDI and DaaS can deliver, as some platforms provide the ability for users to share their desktop with a group of other users, allowing them to collaborate on a project even where high-end graphics may be involved.

As with VDI users, organisations using DaaS report plans to greatly expand their implementation of the technology based on a combination of their initial success and certain market dynamics that have changed how and where employees work.

These dynamics did not include the COVID-19 lockdown, as the ESG research was carried out prior to this, but it has certainly exacerbated any desktop environment challenges organisations were already facing. With employees all working at home, technical support issues, ensuring systems are secure and continue to receive software updates are much harder with traditional desktop and laptop systems, but not with VDI or DaaS.

When it comes to a choice between VDI or DaaS, the ESG report indicated that companies perceive that both have relative merits, with each slightly better positioned than the other in different areas. VDI, for example, is viewed as better for data sovereignty, as it is hosted in the customer’s own premises.

DaaS, however, is seen as having greater scalability to support more users. This is because, being hosted in a public cloud environment, you do not have to worry about maxing out the infrastructure used to host the virtual desktops. Perhaps more importantly, DaaS allows the customer to scale rapidly, with the ability to add hundreds of new users literally overnight if the need arises, such as in the event of a local disaster rendering offices inaccessible, not to mention the recent lockdown due to the pandemic.

Economics of virtual desktops

One of the reasons why organisations first took an interest in virtual desktops was because it was seen as a way of reducing IT costs. This was not so much because of savings on purchasing new PC systems every few years, but because of the total cost of ownership (TCO) associated with rolling out endpoint systems, maintaining them and physically sending support staff to fix issues. This still holds true today, as ESG’s research found. As already mentioned, the top pain points cited by organisations for traditional desktops are ensuring software licensing compliance and high procurement costs, but also the time IT teams spend on routine tasks and helpdesk requests.

A white paper published by VMware estimated that the cost per user per month of operating physical desktops and laptops for an enterprise with 10,000 employees came out at $69, while for on-premises VDI, the figure was $44.

Ensuring security

Meanwhile, more than half of organisations in that ESG report agreed that security concerns were the most important criteria when considering how to deliver desktop environments, and 79 per cent indicated they believe alternative desktop delivery models such as VDI and DaaS are more secure than traditional desktop delivery models. This is partly because the remote screen aspect of virtual desktops means that data stays in the data centre, unlike traditional architectures where applications and data are stored on the user’s endpoint device. VDI and DaaS platforms offer end-to-end encryption of communication with the endpoint device, plus user access and real-time validation with two-factor, smart-card, or biometric fingerprint authentication.

However, ESG warns that VDI and DaaS implementations still need to follow IT and security best practices in order to actually deliver safe and secure digital workspaces.

The past decade or so has also seen a more diverse range of endpoint devices such as tablets and smartphones being brought into the workplace or used by employees while on the road. Such devices have replaced laptops and desktops, but they do complicate the life of the IT team to ensure secure access to corporate apps and data on them Best-of-breed VDI and DaaS platforms will enable single sign-on (SSO) for SaaS, web, cloud, and native mobile applications on any endpoint device. This will allow organisations to support a wide range of endpoints such as Android and iOS tablets and smartphones in addition to thin clients and zero clients, as well as the more usual PCs and Macs.

Some VDI and DaaS platforms also offer the flexibility of delivering access to desktops and applications via a HTML 5-enabled web browser. This makes it easy to on-board users by simply providing them with a URL and login credentials.

What this all boils down to is that modern VDI and DaaS platforms¬ such as VMware’s Horizon and Horizon Cloud are a world away from early platforms aimed at task-based data-entry workers that gave a less than satisfactory experience when compared with a real desktop or laptop. Today, organisations can simplify their desktop and application delivery by consolidating it securely into the data centre or access it as a cloud service, while workers can get access to the applications they need across a variety of endpoint devices, from anywhere with a network connection. These basic and - with more people working remotely than ever - important capabilities will enable productivity gains and enhance employee satisfaction.

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