The situation businesses have found themselves in during the Coronavirus pandemic is unprecedented. In what has been described by Bloomberg as the world’s largest working-from-home experiment, working from home is no longer a privilege, benefit or choice, it’s a necessity for millions of employees, writes Adam Harding, Chief Technologist for Digital Workspace, Softcat.
A well-established, well-oiled and scalable virtual desktop environment will have been a godsend for many public or private sector organisations during this time.
To paraphrase the immortal words of Spinal Tap, dial it up to 11, make sure your people have access to a device with a web browser or a client app, add a half-decent dollop of stable internet connectivity to the mix and et voila you’ve reached nirvana.
Simple, secure, user-friendly access to the apps, data, collaboration tools and backend systems required to keep your people working together and your organisation open for business.
A Foundation for Remote Digital Access
Having been back at the coalface helping organisations to mobilise their operations in days rather than months or even years, those with the fundamentals in place suffer far less service disruption, concede much less ground on user-experience, and manage to maintain the core semblance of their security posture.
Where Do Virtual Desktops Fit In?
Until fairly recently, virtual desktops have been considered a bit “old hat”. Over the years, most organisations have taken at least a peek at the benefits of having a corporate desktop that is accessible from anywhere and from any device. Some have wholeheartedly taken the plunge, some have been happy sticking to the shallow end, and others have abandoned the idea altogether.
For those who only really revisit virtual desktops and apps at renewal time, or when faced with a compelling new business challenge, you may have missed somewhat of a revolution…
What hasn’t helped is the fact that the ‘I’ in VDI, namely infrastructure, is expensive; the setup is complex; and feeding and watering the platform to keep it as stable and performant as it was on day one is demanding.
However, there are new players, new approaches and new opportunities to address each of those challenges head-on.
The VDI market is growing and maturing every year, with a multitude of different service providers now fighting for your custom, each with varying price points and capabilities.
No area of IT is immune to the lure and potential offered by the cloud; and the virtual desktop and app vendors are no different.
Each spotted the opportunity to ease the burden on IT by deploying their own management infrastructure in the cloud. This control-plane-as-a-service style approach has enabled organisations to accelerate deployments and to offload the ongoing operational responsibility for the components and kit to the vendors who know it best.
With this new visibility of cloud resources, new dynamic deployment options are at our disposal for the virtual desktop instances themselves.
Pay-as-you-play cost models level the initial infrastructure investment, whilst introducing the ability to rapidly scale up and importantly down on-demand, paying only for the cloud resources that you’re benefitting from at that moment in time.
No more infrastructure refreshes, no more migrations and platform upgrades to survive, no more running out of headroom in your datacentre, and no need to wait if a user or team require more firepower following an application update.
Is It All too Good to Be True?
Yes and no. These services can all deliver on those promises, but it’s really about an organisation’s individual starting point; client apps, data locations, heritage on-premises applications and the latency they can tolerate.
So, what happens when you hit these limits? Fortunately, this is where the vendor offerings start to find their right place.
Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop (WVD), AWS Workspaces, Citrix Cloud, VMware Horizon Cloud, Workspot and Nutanix Frame are the best candidates for a pure cloud deployment with the control plane, data plane and virtual desktop workloads all deployed in the cloud.
Where organisations hit limitations and require the client apps and therefore virtual desktop instances to remain on-premises or in a colocation facility, then Citrix Cloud and VMware Horizon Cloud both support hybrid deployments, which utilise the control-plane-as-a-service concept.
Technically, Microsoft WVD also offers a hybrid option, but you will need the on-premises Azure Stack platform to access it. Likewise, Nutanix Frame rounds off the hybrid proposition for those with an on-premises Nutanix (AHV) infrastructure.
If neither the cloud or hybrid models appeal, then the old staples of Citrix Virtual Apps and Desktops and VMware Horizon, alongside some novel offerings from HiveIO and Nutanix Frame are good alternative options.
But Remember, VDI isn’t a Silver Bullet
Once you’ve done your research and picked your VDI provider, it isn’t job done. VDI isn’t perfect and it has created new challenges which organisations need to overcome to ensure smooth running.
All VDI products on the market come with built-in security protections but it’s recommended customers should strongly consider upgrading to multi-factor authentication in addition to username and password credentials to strengthen security defences further.
Staff training is also key to ensuring a smooth transition when going virtual and that everyone is getting the most out of VDI. Some less tech-savvy employees may take more time to understand and accept why their desktop has been virtualised, so this can help iron out any problems before they arise from misunderstandings or resistance to change.
It’s also important to be clear on licence guidelines to make sure you aren’t breaching them. Check the guidelines set by your provider about software deployment on virtual machines as these may differ by brand or plan.
Major vendors are unlikely to come down hard on businesses if it’s their first offence, but they do have the right to audit their customers and verify licensing. Most leading providers have now updated their licencing terms for virtualisation to make things clearer.
Unforeseen issues can also arise when moving legacy databases or software over to a virtual desktop. Some may have to be updated before the switch. Running a test before virtualisation can help to identify any troublesome applications and give you time to come up with plan B before you’re too far down the rabbit hole.