As a business owner you may have heard about “thin clients” and the possible benefits of a virtualized desktop environment. Technology being what it is, you may also have struggled to get your head around the concepts and the advantages (and disadvantages) of moving to a virtualized desktop setup. 

At ITomica we felt it would be useful to describe some of the benefits of this computing model, and also to mention the pitfalls. This is by no means meant to be a fully comprehensive list, but if you’re open to the idea of adopting progressive technology then we hope you will find this information useful. 

Virtual Desktop Concept: 

You’re familiar with what’s become the traditional concept of computing. That is, desktop PCs or laptop computers which you power up, login to and then use to access data on your network, or on your C: drive. You’ll use email, access the Internet via a web browser and use your typical productivity applications (Word, Excel etc). 

Depending upon you age, and your interest in IT, you may or may not be aware that in the 70s and 80s, large organisations often used Mainframe computers. These were typically large systems that could fill a room, and were accessed over a network. Terminal “computers” were used to access the Mainframe, and basically consisted of a screen and keyboard but not much else. You powered on, you logged in and used the various applications available to you. The terminals themselves were merely a mechanism to access the Mainframe computer. Without a connection to the Mainframe, they were literally useless. The computing operations were performed by the Mainframe computer. 

The concept of a virtualized desktop environment is a hark back to the days of Mainframe computing. The main similarity is that the computing power and the applications available to users are entirely dependent upon the centralised infrastructure accessed by the client (terminal) device. Data are not stored on the client devices, applications are not installed on the client devices and the client devices are basically all exactly the same. As in a Mainframe environment, you can swap out one client or terminal for another one and the user experience and user environment is exactly the same because the environment is presented by the back end infrastructure and not the client device. Although not recommended, you could pull the power cord from a thin client device in the middle of writing an email, remove the thin client and replace it with another, power it on, login and resume your email from where you left off. Everything would be as it was before, all of the applications you had open would still be open. 

As in the days of Mainframes, the performance of your virtualized desktop depends upon the computing power in your server room and isn’t significantly influenced by the specification of the device used to connect to your virtual desktop environment. The main issue with this model is that due to the complete dependence of connectivity into the servers that run your desktop environment, if you experience network issues you’re in trouble. You’ve most probably at some point experienced the frustration of not being able to access a network drive or the Internet. In a virtualized desktop environment, when you have a connectivity issue you will not be able to do anything until the connectivity issue is resolved. Your computing environment is centralised and if you can’t access it you can’t do anything. The nature of network issues generally means that if you’re affected, your colleagues may be affected too. Similarly, if you experience issues with your centralised infrastructure such as server outages, you and your colleagues may feel some pain until the problem is fixed. 

However, there are ways to mitigate and minimize network and infrastructure issues, and if you have a suitably robust infrastructure then there’s no reason why you can’t all but eliminate those type of issues. 

Pros and Cons: 

It would be fair to say that due to the nature of the technology, virtual desktop environments work best for businesses that have a limited requirement for offline work (i.e. working when you have no network or Internet access). Although there are solutions available for people who want to work “offline”, in our experience these can be difficult to work with and add a level of complexity to your computing environment that’s not always welcome by your users or the IT Department. 

That said, the advantages of a virtual desktop environment are numerous and persuasive, especially if you have a workforce that’s either entirely office-based or can either work from an office or from home with an Internet connection. The advantages below apply to either or both of those scenarios. 

To start with, thin client devices are generally cheaper than desktop PCs to buy. A reasonable quality thin client device can be purchased for around £200. Small organisations would generally find that the cost benefits of thin clients are outweighed by the cost of implementing a virtual desktop environment, combined with a suitably robust network infrastructure. The point at which it becomes cost-effective to adopt this type of technology can vary depending upon many factors, but it’s highly unusual for companies with 10 people of less to embrace the virtual desktop approach. The advantages and cost savings tend to be greater for organisations of 100 people or more, and virtual desktop technology is more or less infinitely scalable. 

The time it takes to deploy a thin client is basically the time it takes to unbox it and plug it in. In a typical IT environment, IT personnel might spend 2 hours setting up a desktop PC. They would deploy an operating system and configure it, then deploy applications to it. In a virtual desktop environment, the operating system and applications are presented by your computing environment and effectively pre-built. You just need to log in and you’re have access to your operating system and applications, which are easily deployed or removed from users. 

In a virtualized desktop environment, updating software and installing patches is a relatively simple process. You update the software or install the patches on the servers hosting your virtual desktop environment and as a result your users are updated too. When the time comes to update to the next version of Windows your IT Department would find it much easier than using traditional desktop PCs or laptops. 

Virtual desktop environments are easily standardised and locked down to prevent unwanted software being installed or settings being changed. To reset someone’s environment takes a minute, whereas in a traditional environment it can take hours – the approach often taken is to reload the operating system and start again. 

Internal office moves are made easier by the fact that it doesn’t matter which client devices an employee uses to login – they’re basically all the same. 

Remote access into your virtualized environment means that employees can access their “office” desktop environment from home, and it’s exactly the same as it is in the office. Further, employees can use their own computing device (laptop / desktop / tablet etc). Again, because the device used is largely irrelevant, they would be accessing their typical desktop setup / user profile with the same applications, desktop settings etc. 

Businesses can operate a BYOD (bring your own device) policy, which allow employees to use their preferred device in the office if they so choose. Again, the device used doesn’t really influence the performance of the virtual desktop environment. 

Your virtual desktop environment is easier than a traditional IT environment to support too. Your IT department will always have the ability to remotely control your computing session to work through issues with you, and they will see exactly what you see. 

Assuming that you have sufficient network bandwidth available, you can use audio and video in a virtual desktop environment too. 

Managing hardware is generally easier since all thin client devices are essentially the same. If a thin client device develops a hardware fault it can be replaced and the user up and running again in minutes. There’s no issue with re-installing applications or backing up data to transfer to the replacement device. 

It’s even possible to use old desktop PCs as thin client devices and effectively re-purpose any old equipment you have and use it as a thin client. 

Speed of access to data is often seen as one of the main advantages of the virtualized desktop approach. Most traditional networks would have their data located in one location (or several locations) but their offices and users could be anywhere. The result is that if you access data from London but your data is in Glasgow, the access speed would be slow. With a virtualized desktop environment you would always look to locate the servers that host your desktop environment in the same location as your data. As a result the speed that you experience is optimized. The same logic applies to remote access. If you have used VPN technology you will be familiar with the lag that can occur when accessing company data. With a properly implemented virtualized desktop environment this is not an issue for the same reason – you data is hosted in the same place as your desktop environment. 

Summary: 

If your business has limited requirements for offline working, and you have ageing hardware, it’s well worth considering the adoption of a virtualized desktop environment. The cost argument will vary depending upon many factors such as the number of employees you have, the complexity of your application requirements, the suitability of your network and various other things. If you’d like to investigate the possibilities that a virtualized desktop environment could offer you then get in touch with us.

 

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