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Desktop and application virtualization: Lessons learned

Server virtualization has hit its stride in companies large and small. Desktop and application virtualization, on the other hand, has a few growing pains. It is still unclear what the full capabilities of the technology are, whether CIOs should wait to see if the technology evolves further before incorporating it into their desktop strategy, and how vendors will ultimately charge for their products.

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Add to that mixed messages from vendors on what they think your company needs: virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) vs.application virtualization vs. a client hypervisor vs. application streaming, or all of the above, and it is easy to see why a lot of CIOs are still performing due diligence.

Here, experts share a few tips on getting started with desktop virtualization and lessons their customers have learned along the way:

Make sure you find out how your software licensing will work on virtualized desktops. One customer had to pay Microsoft $300,000 after an audit of an application virtualization project. The company was using Symantec Corp.'s Norton Ghost disk cloning technology to create ghost images of four different desktop models. "They figured they should only be charged for four images, even though those four images were being used by 800 users," said Ty Schwab, CEO and founder of Blackhawk Technology Consulting LLC in Eugene, Ore.

His advice: Check with all of your vendors to make sure you understand how they license and charge for virtual desktops and applications, particularly smaller vendors that for the most part haven't figured out new pricing models for virtualization.

Double up on projects. Planning a hardware refresh, or an OS upgrade? Many CIOs considering desktop virtualization are waiting for the release of Windows 7. It's less costly than building XP images for virtual desktops and then doing it all over again for Windows 7, advised Chris Wolf, an analyst at Burton Group Inc. in Midvale, Utah.

Map user profiles. Create a profile of groups of users in the company as you formulate a desktop virtualization strategy: What applications are they using? How often are they on the road? What kind of functionality do they need in terms of multimedia? When you are ready to conduct a pilot, start with groups or users who are task-oriented, such as those using point-of-sale applications or contract workers who do not need a lot of functionality to get their job done. Proving out the ROI in test groups will allow you to see where the technology is the right fit. From there you can branch out and customize the technology to the needs of more demanding users to avoid pushback.

Use a test lab and conduct a pilot that is true to scale. "If you plan to run 60 virtual desktops per server, run that scenario in the test environment and perform the actual tasks a user would, such as opening and closing Windows or launching Explorer," Wolf said. The production environment is not a good place to find out that a virtualized application can no longer talk to other applications because it's isolated.

A testing laboratory is also a good training ground for help desk staff members, who can use the virtual environment to reproduce problems, said Nelson Ruest, principal at Resolutions Enterprises in Victoria, B.C. Ruest is writing a beginner's guide on virtualization.

If you plan to run 60 virtual desktops per server, run that scenario in the test environment and perform tasks the actual tasks a user would, such as opening and closing Windows or launching Explorer.

Chris Wolf, analyst, Burton Group Inc.

Buy only what you need. "I am seeing many companies that only want two or three applications virtualized being told by vendors that they need a desktop virtualization suite instead," Schwab said. Added feature sets may be tempting, but you should stick with your minimal requirements. Many virtualization technologies are being designed to work together, so you can add new features over time.

Get the right people involved. The network manager can tell you just what workloads the network can handle and what needs to be added. Security and desktop management teams can also help figure out what skill sets may need to be added or policies changed. They will also tell you just how much work will be involved, such as repackaging applications and redesigning business processes for the new desktop environment.

Prepare for change. The technology is still maturing. VDI requires that the user have Internet access at all times, although some software vendors such as VMware Inc. are developing technology that will give users offline access. If employees need access to graphics-intensive applications, or are traveling often, a client-side or desktop virtualization approach in which the application can run locally in a bubble may be a better fit, but vendors are just testing this technology now. Applications that need a lot of I/O or that scan outside the virtual bubble, such as antivirus tools, are not good candidates to be virtualized.

Vendors are also working on ways to reduce the amount of storage needed for desktop virtualization through deduplication technologies. As far as the management side, vendors haven't come up with a single view for virtual desktop administration, instead having different consoles for different virtualization products.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Christina Torode, Senior News Writer.

This was first published in February 2009

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