What is Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)?

If you’re reading this article, you’ve probably either heard this term used by a member of your IT support staff or are looking into the technology for yourself. Either way, it’s important to clarify first and foremost that this is a technology used to save IT departments both time and overhead costs associated with keeping workstations up and working.

VDI isn’t just a virtual desktop. It can exist with virtually any Windows or Linux OS, and allows you to update your entire inventory in a single action versus going to each machine individually and installing the updates manually.

A VDI is a great solution for enterprise organizations that have anywhere from a dozen to thousands of workstations that require regular updates. By keeping the core centralized processing in a server, you can get away with using relatively low-powered machine (or thin client) to create an experience that acts and feels as though you’re running a full-powered stand-along desktop at each desk.

How Does the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Work?

VDI, a concept originated by VMWare, is available in a number of different forms from Microsoft, Citrix, Oracle, Red Hat, Univention, and VMWare by way of VMWare View. All of these solutions have some core principals in common.

For example, client systems are connecting to a virtual desktop hosted on a centralized server as opposed to being loaded locally on the hardware. You can connect by way of software or a thin client and experience a full, robust operating environment as though you were actually sitting at a much larger machine.

Everything is hosted on the server. The desktop environment can be a single install with divided user-specific file folders and settings each user dials into individually or a more custom individualized installation with each user’s desktop environment being hosted on its own virtual machine at the server. Either way, IT departments can use this centralized hosting to deliver updates, new software, and troubleshoot issues without having to visit the user’s workstation to do so. Everything can be done from the cloud, and the user can be located anywhere from the internal office to a beachside resort located halfway across the world. The only requirement is a fast and reliable connection to the host via intranet or Internet.

As with any remote software, security is a prime concern. A properly managed VDI should be extremely secure, though mismanagement can quickly lead to security holes.

What is a Thin Client?

A physical thin client is a small, simple device that allows you to connect to a virtual desktop environment. It has the ability to connect to a monitor, speakers, input devices, and sometimes an external storage device for the purpose of uploading new information to the centralized server.

Hardware thin clients are often extremely cheap compared to full-fledged desktop computers (referred to as fat clients). These systems can range in size from a typical workstation to as small as an external hard drive. Ultra-thin clients are even smaller as they require virtually no local storage to initialize the networking protocols and establish a link to the host.

Thin clients can be installed on existing machines as well. This allows IT departments to extend the life of its inventory significantly while reducing the overhead costs for new systems. Just imagine the cost reduction of replacing 50 traditional stand-alone workstations with 50 thin clients running on a centralized server. The thin client hardware, IT support overhead, and licensing costs are all reduced significantly in the long-term.

What Are the Downsides of Using a VDI?

Clients are limited in a VDI-driven environment. Not only does the connection to the network have to be absolutely stable in order for the desktop experience to appear more seamless, but performing high-intensity tasks such as multimedia viewing and video editing aren’t recommended.

PJ Hanna, a member of the Gnomies business community and founder of Graemouse Technologies, stated: “The biggest complaint I have heard from my customers is the audio and video were terrible,” He continued, “They could not download programs like they used to on their desktops.”

A VDI is a great solution in cases where the user is doing basic work using office software, browsing the Web, or entering data into a larger system. It could even be a valuable aid in long-term processing such as rendering or heavy calculations as the client can leave their workstation and move to a new location without interrupting the session.

Like any virtual software, users are required to have an active connection to the host in order to get things done. This means you can’t log in your work desktop environment form a plane or any other location with slow/no Internet connection. Your thin client is rendered pretty useless in these cases, which can be considered a serious downside during critical deadlines.

Virtual desktop environments are a trade-off. The time saved updating and maintaining workstations often has to be made up (at least partially) in server security and maintenance. Some of your staff will still require traditional desktop environments, so you shouldn’t expect the entire office to run from a VDI. You’ll still need to have support staff in place for those users which require local workstations.

Tips from an Expert

I spoke with Chris Wahl, the founder of Wahl Network to get his take Virtual Desktop Infrastructure technologies, “VDI is literally virtual desktop infrastructure, but goes well beyond just housing virtual desktops on a platform. VDI is the goal of freeing users from a physical infrastructure from all aspects — their applications, persona, and interaction method. VDI is entirely about user experience, and how to deliver that experience in a robust, fluid, and powerful way. It doesn’t typically have a huge CapEx savings (and often ends up costing more than sticking with traditional IT) but, if embraced for what it is, can offer significant OpEx savings and increase agility and business efficiency.”

When asked about things to avoid when considering/implementing a VDI solution at your business, he said: “The largest thing you want to avoid is thinking about VDI as “business as usual” + virtualization. A common pitfall for companies is to simply dump their legacy environment into VDI and expect a positive outcome. People and processes must be transformed to embrace VDI in order to get value out of it. An example would be managing how users interact with a VDI session — if you stick a computer at a desk and force users to interact by this method, you are missing out on opportunities with thin clients, zero clients, and mobile clients.”

He concluded by sharing some additional tips, “If you want to experiment with VDI, be willing to front a reasonable up front cost for a POC, or leverage a partner / vendor to assist. Sticking VDI on old equipment you have lying around will not have good results — often times the POC “fails” because aging or under-powered hardware is trying to deliver rich experiences to a user.”

So, if you’re considering VDI as a solution for your small business or enterprise division, there are plenty of pros and cons to weigh before taking that leap. For many businesses, VDI is a solution that drives costs down while keeping your staff ready and able to get the job done, no matter where in the building (or world) they might be located on a given day.

Image By: Peter Astbury

1 comments On What is Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)?

  • Search for “VDI Smackdown”, a great document which covers in a unbiased way the essence, strategy, pros/cons and solutions in the VDI space..

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