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Enterprise desktop virtualization design and testing best practices

Getting the design and user-testing stage right is critical to developing an enterprise desktop virtualization strategy.

Enterprise desktop virtualization is an infrastructure overhaul that can lead to pushback from users and the business if performance levels suffer because of mistakes at the design and testing stage.

Many enterprises fumble at the design stage because they try to accommodate each and every user's distinct desktop profile. Instead of minimizing the number of desktop images, which can simplify desktop management by as much as 80%, many enterprises are overloading virtual servers with too many images, said Kevin Vogl, vice president of virtualization at systems integrator Champion Solutions Group Corp. in Boca Raton, Fla.

"I see enterprises that take a small group of users and, instead of giving that group one or two images, they end up with six [images] because a few people in the group use an application that the rest of the group doesn't," Vogl said.

Instead, applications that are unique to a few users should be delivered separately through application virtualization. Otherwise, an enterprise could end up with thousands of images to support, Vogl said.

User boot storms are often brought up as another potential storage-allocation or network capacity nightmare associated with enterprise desktop virtualization. Boot storms also can be avoided at the design stage if shared memory -- available in most of today's virtualization products -- is used. When the first image of Windows 7, for example, is loaded, shared memory technology voids the need to load memory for that image the next time a user boots up Windows 7, Vogl said. (Read more about desktop virtualization approaches to Windows 7 migrations.)

Unlike some desktop virtualization pundits, Vogl said he believes hosted desktops put less strain on the network, not more -- again, when the infrastructure is set up correctly. Users experience fewer jumps from server to server than before; that, in turn, puts less strain on the network when the desktop images and servers are connected to the main switch in the data center, Vogl said.

"Unlike the spoke-and-wheel model, where all the end switches connect to the central hub and every PC hits that hub from different locations, with desktop virtualization, everything is connected to the same enterprise switch or hub, so less traffic is going over the network," Vogl said.

In addition, storage virtualization technologies, such as thin provisioning and snapshotting, can help alleviate desktop virtualization storage requirements.

While designing a virtualized infrastructure, the CIO will have to change the IT organization's skill sets. A server administrator may need to learn how to manage virtualized desktops, a desktop administrator may need to learn how to build and provision a virtual machine, and others will have to figure out how to allocate storage under the new paradigm. "The IT disciplines for desktop virtualization have yet to be defined: That is something that enterprises are learning as they go," said Mark Margevicius, research vice president in charge of end-user computing at Gartner Inc.

New services also are being moved to the data center or created for the first time. When desktop images are moved into the data center, IT staff becomes responsible for backing up users' data. "How many companies do you see doing individual [user] device backups? And now IT is responsible for disaster recovery, where they may not have had a strategy in place for laptops or desktops before," said Mark Bowker, an analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG) in Milford, Mass.

Choosing desktop virtualization test groups

All these preparations may be for naught, however, if the CIO does not choose the right installation path for the company.

In Vogl's experience, the best group to test first is not a group selected from the rank and file, but from top company management. "They are less likely to freak out if performance isn't as good, and will tell you exactly what has to be fixed," he said. "Also, it's a matter of perception. People at other levels of the company see that the big guys have something new and cool, and they want it, too."

The IT disciplines for desktop virtualization have yet to be defined: that is something that enterprises are learning as they go.

Mark Margevicius, research vice president, Gartner Inc.

Another prime guinea pig for enterprise desktop virtualization is the training room. Production is not affected in training classes, and a variety of new training classes can be created quickly and simply by reimaging thin clients for different types of training, Vogl said.

"And since a lot of people across the organization take training in some form, this proof-of-concept area can become a proving ground for production and user buy-in," Vogl said.

Gartner's Margevicius said he typically sees desktop virtualization beginning with more predictable workers with static configurations. Some enterprises are even considering as desktop virtualization candidates those workers who don't necessarily have static configurations but who work only in the office and at home.

One of the first steps that ESG's Bowker recommends is matching the desktop virtualization solution to the employees. Users who need a lot of capacity on their local desktop or ones who often work offline are not ideal candidates for desktop virtualization, for example.

Mobile laptop users still represent a gap for enterprise desktop virtualization. "For the mobile segment, the issue is being tethered to the network; for them, the only real option still is a laptop with its own capacity and applications," Margevicius said.

But desktop virtualization may make sense for workers who use laptops at home and at the office and do not travel. "I think something like 65% to 70% of homes have broadband access … I'm seeing enterprises looking at giving these employees thin client at home and at the office," Margevicius said.

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

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