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Virtual desktops: Cheap and effective

Desktop virtualization is a reliable way for SMBs to lower the cost of operating systems, applications and security by turning PCs into easy-to-manage, file-like images. But wait -- you also get reliability and efficiency.

Virtualization technologies have a lot to offer small and medium-sized businesses (SMBs). Virtualization is a low-cost way to deal with unmanaged PCs. Application conflicts can be minimized, which allows users access to more tools, and business continuity and data security can be increased, which can ultimately help accelerate application development and rollouts.

"Virtual desktops and servers offer companies a great way to manage clients because all the data and applications can be placed in the data center," said Ed Skoudis, founder and senior security consultant at Washington, D.C.-based Intelguardians LLC.

The key benefit of desktop virtualization is that it solves complexity at the desktop, said Natalie Lambert, a senior analyst at Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Desktop virtualization eliminates the testing of multiple configurations; allows desktops to be reprovisioned easily; increases security, especially data; and improves system stability, reliability and manageability, Lambert said. With support and maintenance costs chewing up 80% of a PC's total cost of ownership, virtualization is becoming more appealing.

Before you decide to implement virtualization, Lambert offers the following advice:

  • Understand the varieties of desktop virtualization. Lambert identifies three types: hosted desktops, in which desktop environments are hosted remotely in a data center, either on a server or blade PC; PC hosted, where virtual machines are hosted directly on users' PCs; and Universal Serial Bus sticks.

  • Understand that desktop virtualization is not the same as application virtualization. Lambert defined application virtualization as "an application that runs in an isolated environment on the PC. It communicates through the virtualization layer with the host OS." Application virtualization focuses on reducing administration and maintenance costs. It also eliminates application conflicts and delivers applications independent of OS configurations.

  • Research the leading desktop virtualization vendors. Lambert noted the leading desktop virtualization vendors, which include VMware Inc., Microsoft and Parallels Inc. Citrix Systems Inc., Microsoft, VMware and Wyse Technology Inc. are leaders in hosted desktop products.

Steps to virtualization success

For a successful virtualization implementation, Lambert recommends the following for SMBs:

  • Break down users into groups based on mobility, resource requirements and sensitive data requirements.

  • Conduct a pilot program with specific user groups, such as contractors using unmanaged PCs.

  • Consolidate and standardize machines to support the desktop virtualization effort.

  • Conduct pilot projects running problematic applications.

Hosted virtualization solutions are good options for SMBs that need to quickly provide mobile and contract workers with secure, corporate-approved desktops, Lambert said. "The virtual machine image has all the attributes of a file, so IT staff can blow away the PC image very quickly if they need to."

Security issues

Desktop virtualization is an inexpensive way for IT to solve many management nightmares -- as long as you deploy adequate security measures.

Virtual machines can be deployed with corporate-approved applications that can run on multiple operating systems at the same time, Skoudis said. He noted, however, that security problems may arise when the virtual technology is not hardened to protect virtual machines from attack.

Companies can add encryption, virus protection and other security features that protect virtual machines accessing corporate resources, Lambert noted.

Once a desktop virtualization product is deployed, IT generally doesn't have to worry about anything that goes on the PC outside the virtual machine, Lambert said.

"But when there's joint ownership -- such as when a contractor uses an outside PC for a job -- IT will have to harden the network to protect it from attack," Skoudis said.

Herman Mehling is a freelance writer based in San Anselmo, Calif. He can be reached at hermanmehling@sbcglobal.net.

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