Opinion Piece: Virtualised desktops for standardisation, security and performance in distributed environments

Pieter le Roux gives us his views on the benefits of virtualised desktops in distributed environments

September 13, 2011

By Pieter le Roux, Technical Director at The Webcom Group

Virtualisation is one of several buzzwords currently making the rounds within the Information Communication Technology (ICT) departments of most large corporates, heralded as a convenient way to reduce costs and improve the overall management of ICT, including licensing, within the organisation.

While virtualisation within server environments can provide a host of cost saving, management and maintenance benefits, this technology can also be extended to include the desktop, something which is particularly useful in distributed environments where organisations have a workforce that is spread across the country or even the world.

Today’s large organisation faces several challenges, including a variety of different hardware platforms, operating systems and software requirements for employees in different departments and areas of the business, all of which need to be catered for.

Version control can also become a problem, and different versions of hardware, software and operating systems have different requirements for maintenance, security and management. In a distributed environment these challenges are compounded by the need to have people in each branch across the country available to manage and maintain a plethora of separate devices.

In such cases, ability to access software hosted from the corporate headquarters using Software as a Service (SaaS) is convenient, reduces complexity associated with licensing and is secure with the inclusion of a virtual private network (VPN). It also makes standardisation easier if contractors engage with the organisation, eliminating the requirement to load software on their notebooks.

However, this solution does not solve the issues of version control and maintenance, and also requires constant and stable connectivity. Since many distributed branches make use of 3G connections to access information on the corporate network, they may struggle with speed and performance. In addition, if the 3G network, or even the ADSL connection, is slow or connectivity is interrupted, this can have a negative impact on productivity in these distributed branches.

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) solves these connectivity issues, while still delivering on ease of management and maintenance, security and reduced licensing complexity. By moving the operating system away from the device and having a central server to run management software, applications can be deployed specifically for the needs of different users and standards can be set in terms of the operating system, versions, software, anti-virus, and even the screensaver and background image used on every device.

Desktop virtualisation technology creates ‘images’ using Adobe Flash, with all of the necessary software, resources and information, that can be associated to individual user accounts and then published to that user’s device. The image runs on the server and is streamed down to the device in a pipe that can be secured with encryptions, and the behaviour of each desktop can be strictly controlled.

These images are associated to the user’s login, so users can access their own personal desktop regardless of the device they are using, as long as the device is Flash compatible. This means that laptops, desktops, thin clients and even smartphones and tablet PCs can access the virtual machines.

The VDI also does not need to stream data constantly, and so is not highly resource intensive. Once published to the device, the image is cached so that it runs off device memory, ensuring that a constant Internet connection is not necessary for continued productivity. When the user connects again, the image is synchronised back to the server along with whatever work was done, allowing organisations to tightly manage exactly what is being done and ensure that backups are run on a regular basis.

This technology is also widely applicable for contractors, who can be given their own ‘desktop’ within the organisation on their own equipment. This lets them access the corporate network for the duration of their contract, without the need to purchase a new device, and also ensures all work is backed up and access can easily be removed once the contract has expired.

This also negates the need for a new license for any software the contractor might need, since the licensing already lives on the server.

This technology is also useful for organisations that license their own proprietary software, since the applications can be hosted, pushed to clients as images and once licensing has expired the images can be removed.

In this scenario there is also no installation required, so deployment is quick, and organisations can easily manage and monitor who is using their tools and applications.

VDI is the ideal solution for distributed environments and remote branches, and offers a far smarter solution than SaaS or remote desktops, since both of these technologies are entirely dependent on a stable Internet connection. When users synchronise, backups will be automatically completed to the server, and since VDI is Flash driven it is fast and can be published in a secure pipe.

Managing devices becomes a far simpler task, since standards can be deployed across the board and technicians are only necessary in the location of the central server for all routine maintenance. Licensing headaches are also simplified, since software does not need to be installed permanently on each individual device, updating only needs to happen at the server side and then new images can be pushed to devices, and security is taken care of because the encryption of the pipe can be customised to meet the standards of even the most sensitive organisations.

Using VDI also helps to ensure business continuity, since synchronisation will automatically take care of backups, and business information and applications are not stored on the device, so if a device gets stolen or is lost, critical business information is not lost along with it.

Virtualised desktops enable standardisation, high security and guaranteed performance, making them highly applicable in any distributed office environment, and even in large centralised corporate and medium sized businesses. They provide a cost effective, easy to manage and maintain solution to many of today’s ICT issues.

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