From the virtual desktop to the virtual data centre

23 Aug 2011

By thinking beyond server virtualisation, organisations can benefit from greater savings, flexibility and agility, writes Sheamus Nulty

Server Virtualisation is one of the hottest topics in the IT industry, but organisations now need to think beyond just server virtualisation if they’re not to miss out on the bigger issues like utility computing, mobility and collaboration.

End-to-end virtualisation can dramatically reduce the 70pc of IT budget typically spent by organisations on just keeping their existing IT Infrastructure running. A large proportion of the savings are achieved through the elimination of manual tasks that can eat up a large proportion of IT spend. This translates into an overall saving of up to 40pc of the total IT budget.

Desktop virtualisation is seeing a lot of traction lately, especially within large companies, because of user enablement and desktop management costs. The former is about allowing a user to easily and effectively communicate and collaborate across a multitude of computer devices, while desktop management costs are focused on the total cost of ownership (TCO) of a desktop. Before delving into these reasons in more detail, let’s look at some of the basics.

Virtual desktop

A virtual desktop refers to an end user’s desktop environment, including their data and applications stored or hosted remotely on a server in a data centre, rather than on a physical desktop. All the CPU, memory and storage requirements for the virtual desktop are provided by the server and the end user must remotely access the virtual desktop to allow them work.

Desktop virtualisation is the all-encompassing term incorporating the host of technologies that provide a way to deliver this virtual desktop. The whole idea behind desktop virtualisation is to isolate and abstract the layers making up a virtual desktop, i.e. operating system, user data/settings, applications and device hardware. By virtualising and centrally managing these different layers, end users get the flexibility and freedom they desire, while IT gets a cost-effective, secure way to manage the desktop infrastructure.

The desktop experience is individualised for each user by recomposing the layers that are required each time a user logs in. This approach delivers a similar user experience to all users, irrespective of the device so organisations are no longer tied to a particular computer type.

Consumers driving IT

This is key, as today organisations face a fundamental shift in what devices are used to deliver applications due to consumerisation. Users drive this change because they believe their consumer device is now more capable than that currently provided by their workplace.

Organisations will be forced to learn how to manage and deliver applications to these new consumer devices, such as iPhones and iPads, as employees will bring them into various workflows and processes. The great payback for an organisation is user enablement.

This drives costs out of the business through improved user productivity and flexible working. The payback can be difficult to quantify. However, BT was able to reduce desk occupancy at an organisation’s corporate HQ recently by 10pc, saving millions of euro each year.

Desktop virtualisation is not a one-size-fits-all solution. It requires a larger initial cap-ex spend than the standard desktop deployment model. However, greater flexibility, agility and supportability can be achieved through desktop virtualisation, generating a considerable reduction in the yearly desktop op-ex costs.

The virtual data centre

The final piece of the puzzle in our end-to-end virtualisation journey, the virtual data centre (VDC), provides the infrastructure to support the virtual desktops hosted in the data centre.

A data centre in its simplest form is a computer room which hosts IT infrastructure upon which applications are deployed. It can be on-premise or off-premise at a purpose-built facility.

A virtual data centre weaves together server, network and storage, and leverages virtualisation technology across all these components to deliver a virtual infrastructure platform. So the virtual data centre introduces additional virtualisation components such as the network and storage.

Automation plays a vital role in delivering these resources in an on-demand fashion, while removing a large proportion of the manual tasks that were previously performed by IT staff. These tasks can be transformed into automated and standardised processes freeing up time for IT staff to concentrate on work that provides real value to the organisation.

Just like a physical data centre, a virtual data centre can be on-premise or off-premise. An on-premise VDC is private; an off-premise VDC can be a public or a private. A private VDC is purpose-built for an organisation and carries a large upfront cap-ex cost. A typical example of this is the vBlock from EMC, Cisco and VMware. The public VDC is delivered as an op-ex cost where typically a price is paid either monthly or daily for every virtual machine (VM) that is brought online. Examples of these are BT’s Virtual Data centre or Amazon’s Virtual Private Cloud. The architecture a VDC is built on can be significantly different from vendor to vendor.

Where to start?

Before any technology changes are introduced an organisation should review their IT structure. The silos that exist between desktop, server, storage, network and application teams need to be broken down. In desktop virtualisation, the desktop now lives in the network and is no longer sitting on the desk.

The transition to a VDC will additionally involve changes to work practices. Certain jobs or tasks that were performed might no longer be needed. To ensure its success, staff need to understand how much it can help their work as well as the organisation. Training will form a key part of this support.

End-to-end virtualisation is not a ‘rip and replace’ event; a transition timeline could take several years. All changes should be driven by return on investment calculations, with the transition strategy incorporating checkpoints to ensure the corresponding benefits and cost savings to the organisation are being achieved. To evaluate either desktop virtualisation or VDC, an organisation should organise a demo of the technologies with prospective IT companies.

Sheamus Nulty is an infrastructure architect with BT Ireland

BT Ireland and Northern Ireland’s Graham Sutherland will be a panelist at the upcoming Digital Ireland Forum in Dublin on 30 September 2011. For further information on speakers and panelists go to the website.