VDI in the Age of Covid-19: Remote Work and the Challenge of the Virtualized Client

These are trying times, not least because corporate life needs to go on, which for millions of businesses means delivering compute resources to employees at home. Remote work is no longer an option or an initiative – almost overnight it’s become a global imperative. And just like that, IT pros worldwide face a massive challenge.

One possible solution is Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), which connects users via web browser into a virtual machine instance running on a server somewhere, be it inside a corporation’s data centers in Citrix or VMware, or provided by a cloud platform such as AWS or Azure.

Of course, the concept of remote access to a pre-configured virtual desktop is not new. I can remember how on one of my first analyst assignments, some two decades ago, I was tasked to determine the total cost of ownership (TCO) of thin-client systems against their local, rich-client desktop equivalents. Twenty years later, I return to this suddenly urgent topic to ask some of our analysts what’s new about VDI and how it might address our current challenge.

First off, VDI is still very much a thing, with technology that continues to evolve and leverage hosted, cloud models.

“Every company I’ve worked with in the last 15 years has started some sort of VDI environment – especially now that teams are upgrading or replacing legacy Citrix environments,” says Iben Rodriguez, whose day job crosses a number of enterprise clients in the financial and government sectors. “We had a company come to us for an expansion of their 1000-user AWS Workspaces solution, and another customer is moving 3000 users to a Microsoft VDI solution away from Citrix.”

He says that a 2009 user deployment on VMware Horizon VDI still runs on Cisco and EMC hardware.

And Iben contends that there’s still plenty of TCO to be found in VDI deployments. Even if endpoint hardware prices have dropped, cost overhead can still be significant in an unmanaged environment. The lower costs enabled by centralized control appears to be the compelling reason to move to a VDI approach. Add to that the security and management benefits across both the remote desktop and the communications link, and the benefits add up. Control enables simplicity, which reduces risk —all good reasons to adopt a virtualized model.

However, centralized control can cause conflicts with the user base, which is after all the group being served. And that conflict, says Andrew Brust, is all about end users wanting control.

“While VDI from old school Citrix and Remote Desktop to newer cloud-hosted platforms are cool, people find that desktop-on-desktop gets confusing and nobody loves it. Just as people like apps on their phones, people like to install software on their laptops and don’t love delegating control of that away — even if IT does.”

There’s another issue: Today’s ”perfect” desktop configuration may not be quite so perfect in six, 12 or 18 months. Management systems have a decay curve, which needs to be factored into the initial business case and approach.

“The gold image problem is real, and a real headache, says Ned Bellavance, who also warns that proper hardware needed to support good VDI can be costly. “And it doesn’t help with overwhelmed VPNs or disconnected scenarios.”

The answer, in part, lies in deciding what is worth fixing, and what should remain outside of centralized control. “When you factor stuff out that’s portable, it scales well,” says Brust. “When you try to replicate the full stack including the personal OS and environment, not so much.

He adds: “In general, centralizing and templatizing for large-scale deployment of things that are based on personal [computing] environments can hit glitches.”

If this sounds like a compromise, that’s because it is — at least in the short term. Looking further out, we can learn from another domain — Mobile Device Management (MDM) – which has evolved to help organizations control and secure smartphones and handheld devices.

“Many traditional MDM solutions moved to a mobile application management paradigm, because controlling the device is a pain,” says Bellavance. Core to the new MDM approach is the use of containers.

Containers, essentially stand-alone application modules that can run anywhere, are having an impact across the technology space — not least in massively scalable, cloud-based application architectures. Netflix, for example, is the poster child for containerization.

As it turns out, containers are also very useful when it comes to balancing control with user flexibility.

“It’s easier to control the app as a container on mobile devices,” Ned continues. “Ideally we would bring a similar container approach to desktop operating systems, and you wouldn’t need to mess about with local device management.”

Microsoft is an adopter of this model, with its InTune app protection product, and the company has leveraged containers to enable Windows to run on ARM processors.

“The container approach (broadly speaking) has been liberating in lots of ways. It’s made things work that seemed utterly insoluble for a very long time,” says Brust.

So, how can organizations adopt VDI today, while at the same time planning for the future? The answer is to be realistic on cost planning in the short term, particularly in terms of management and support overhead created by the huge increase in remote work. At the same time, IT organizations should watch for advances around containerization and how it can enable an optimal blend of end-user flexibility and centralized control.

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