Five Steps To Making Virtual Desktop a Reality

By David Strom

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While the idea may not be on many IT radar screens yet, a few shops are beginning to implement these tools as a way of keeping their desktops inside the data center where they can be more readily managed, updated, and secured. The idea has some merit, particularly for those of us that began our computing careers in the mainframe era with 3270 terminals. But the road to total desktop virtualization isn't easy, and can be overwhelming.

Before you consider VDI, do an applications audit and see how many of the following situations you have in your enterprise. The more you have, the more problems you will find with deploying VDI to these users:

Here are five steps to consider what will it take to fully deploy VDI and how can you evolve towards this goal:

Step 1 - Pick your storage area network (SAN) and virtual machine (VM) hypervisor suppliers. You'll need to beef up both eventually, but if you don't have much experience with either now is the time to get started. Just about any SAN vendor will work with VDI, but the key things to look for are scalability. Once you start saving all those desktop VMs to your SAN you can take up a lot more space.

There are four major VM hypervisor suppliers: VMware, Citrix Xen, Microsoft and Sun (listed in order of their suitability for VDI from best to least). All three sell VM servers such as VMware's ESX that are good solutions for VDI, but once you start down the path of one vendor's products, it isn't easy to switch or mix and match. So, make sure you are comfortable with these basic virtualization technology providers before proceeding.

Part of this step is looking at server hardware to house all of your VMs. Cisco's UCS is one worth looking at, because of the memory and VM density that you can support with this device. In one demonstration from VirtualStorm.com earlier this fall at VMworld, there were more than 400 VMs running Windows XP on each of six blades on a single device. Each XP instance had more than 90 GB of applications contained in its VDI image, which was very impressive.

Step 2 - Look at application streaming tools as a way to begin to deliver applications to your desktops. There are three major streaming providers here: VMware's ThinApp, Symantec's Endpoint Virtualization Suite, and Microsoft's App-V. Microsoft and VMware both work best with their own hypervisors, while Symantec's can run on any platform. (To get an idea of how complex these streaming tools are, take a look at a screencast video that I prepared for Symantec.)

Step 3 - Gain experience with VM image management tools. Each of the major vendors offers a series of tools to make changes to the original VM instance that you want to duplicate and deploy across your enterprise. For example, VMware offers vSphere and View Composer. There are a number of third-party tools that are worth exploring here, because they offer more features and can scale across larger deployments. Two worth checking out are LiquidWareLabs.com and VDIworks.com.

Step 4 - Look at connection brokers to manage how you will deploy your desktops. These products determine which protocol and remote desktop host is assigned to a particular user. They include such vendors as Citrix Desktop Broker for Presentation Server, LeoStream Virtual Desktop Connection Broker, and Quest Software's Virtual Access Suite. Part of your explorations here is to figure out which remote control protocols you will need to use, such as Windows Remote Desktop Connection.

Step 5 - Purchase thin clients or ordinary PCs for your endpoints. There are specialized thin client computers from HP, ChipPC, Wyse, Sun Ray, and Praim.com that offer cost and energy savings over ordinary PCs for your endpoints, but they also offer challenges in that they are usually under-powered devices that may not deliver all the applications or performance you require. Some thin clients only work with particular hypervisors and protocols too, so that is why we've saved this step until last. Some, such as the Wyse S-10-VDI, come bundled with the Leostream Broker clients to make things a bit easier.

One other factor to consider is smart card support, to enable users to login to their desktops easily and automatically.

As you can see, there is a lot of technology to evaluate, test, and deploy before you can be free from the traditional unmanaged desktop that a user is free to use and abuse at will.

Dave Strom is a freelance writer living in St. Louis and the former editor-in-chief of Network Computing magazine, DigitialLanding.com, and Tom's Hardware.com. He has written two books and numerous articles on networking, the Internet, and IT security topics. He can be reached at david@strom.com and his blog can be found at strominator.com.