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Quick: Think of the five systems administration tasks you most enjoy doing! If you’re like most techies, desktop management probably didn’t make the list. It’s probably right up there with washing the car or mowing the lawn (a whole different type of administration challenge). Caring for and feeding client-side computers can be a painful and never-ending process. Therefore, it’s no surprise that Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) technology is capturing the eyes and ears of IT staff.

But does VDI provide a unique solution? Or, can you get the same benefits through other practices and approaches? (If you’ve read the title of this Tip, there’s a good chance you can guess where I’m going with this.) Over the years, a variety of solutions for managing desktop and notebook computers have become commonplace. In this article, I’ll outline some problems and solutions. The goal is not to discredit VDI, but to look at options for achieving the same goals.

Deployment and Provisioning

  • Problem: Rolling out new desktop computers can be time-consuming and labor-intensive. Using VDI, provisioning is much faster since standard base images can be quickly deployed within the data center. Users can then access the images from any computer or thin client.
  • Alternative Solution(s): Automated operating system deployment tools are available from OS vendors and from third-parties. Some use an image-based approach in which organizations can create libraries of supported configurations and then deploy them to physical or virtual machines. When combined with network boot features, the process can be completely automated. Additionally, there are server-based options such as Microsoft SoftGrid for automatically installing applications as they are requested.

Desktop Support and Remote Management

  • Problem: Managing and troubleshooting desktop systems can be costly and time-consuming in standard IT environments, as physical access to client machines is often required. With VDI implementations, all client operating systems, applications, and configuration settings are stored centrally within VMs within the data center. This reduces the need to visit client desktops or to have physical access to portable devices such as notebook computers.
  • Alternative Solution(s): While VDI can sometimes simplify support operations, IT departments still need to manage individual operating system images and application installations. Remote management tools can reduce the need for physical access to a computer for troubleshooting purposes. Some solutions use the same protocols (such as the Remote Desktop Protocol, RDP) that VDI or other approaches would use. Products and services also allow for troubleshooting computers over the Internet or behind remote office firewalls. That can help you support Mom, who might not be authorized to access a VM image in your corporate data center.

Resource Optimization / Hardware Consolidation

  • Problem: Desktop hardware is often under-utilized and hardware maintenance can be a significant cost and management burden. By combining many desktop computers on server hardware, VDI can be used to increase overall system resource utilization. Additionally, client computers have minimal system requirements, making them more cost effective to maintain over time.
  • Alternative Solution(s): VDI takes the “server consolidation” approach and applies it to desktop computers. Standard client computers are minimally utilized, from a resource standpoint. Desktop hardware, however, tends to be far cheaper than data center equipment. And, with VDI client-side devices are still required, although they are “thin”. When data center costs related to power, cooling, storage, and redundancy are factored in, it can be hard to beat to cost of a mid-range desktop computer. Through the use of application virtualization and solutions such as Citrix and Microsoft Terminal Services, organizations can increase the effective lifecycle of desktop hardware. Windows Server 2008’s version of Terminal Services provides the ability to run single applications (rather than entire desktops) in a virtualized environment, thereby providing the benefits of centralized application management with scalability. There are potential compatibility issues, but they may be offset by the ability to support many more users per server.

Supporting Mobile Users and Outsourcing

  • Problem: Maintaining security for remote sites, traveling users, and non-company staff can be a significant challenge when allowing the use of standard desktop or notebook computers. VDI helps minimize data-related risks by physically storing information within the data center. Even if client devices are lost or stolen, information should remain secure and protected.
  • Alternative Solution(s): For some types of remote users, it might make sense to provide isolated desktop environments via VDI. However, these users would require network access to the VMs themselves. Multi-factor authentication (using, for example, biometric devices) and encrypted connections (such as VPNs) can help protect network access from standard desktop computers. Network Access Control (NAC) is a technology that can help prevent insecure machines from connecting to the network. And, carefully managed security permissions can prevent unauthorized access to resources. All of these best practices apply equally whether or not VDI is being used. Finally, there’s no substitute for implementing and following rigid security policies, regardless of the technical approach that is used.

Managing Performance

  • Problem: Desktop operating systems and applications can never seem to have enough resources to perform adequately, leading to shorter upgrade cycles. Using VDI to place desktop VMs on the server, systems administrators can monitor and allocate system resources based on the resource needs of client computers.
  • Alternative Solution(s): In theory, VDI implementations can take advantage of highly-scalable server-side hardware, and it’s usually easier to reconfigure CPU, memory, disk and networking settings for a VM than it is to perform a hardware upgrade on a desktop computer. The drawback with the VDI approach is that applications or services that consume too many resources could potentially hurt the performance of other systems on that same server. Load-balancing and portability can help alleviate this, but administrators can also use other techniques such as server-based computing to centrally host specific resource-intensive applications.

Workload Portability

  • Problem: Operating systems and applications are tied to the desktop hardware on which they’re running. This makes it difficult to move configurations during upgrades, reorganizations, or job reassignments. With VDI, the process of moving or copying a workload is simple since the entire system configuration is encapsulated in a hardware-independent virtual machine.
  • Alternative Solution(s): When entire desktop configurations need to be moved or copied, the VDI approach makes the process easy since it’s based on virtual machines. When using standard desktop computers, however, the same imaging and conversion tools can be used to move an OS along with its applications to another computer. As these hardware-independent images can be deployed to both physical and virtual machines, this also provides IT departments with a seamless way to use VDI and standard desktop computers in the same environment.


Ask not whether VDI is a solution to your desktop management problems, but rather whether it is the best solution to these challenges. VDI offers benefits related to quick deployments, workload portability, centralized management, and support for remote access. Few of these benefits are unique to VDI, though, so keep in mind the alternatives.