Desktop virtualisation: four sizes fit all

6 May 2011

Employees come in all manner of shapes and sizes, with a diverse range of skills and weaknesses. While the best managers know how to motivate and support every individual, the same cannot always be said for corporate IT policy, which usually favours a more rigid ‘one size fits all’ approach.

The ‘one size fits all’ mindset is evident in the early releases of desktop virtualisation technology because it failed to offer support for anyone beyond task workers and specialist use cases, such as off shoring software development and highly secure desktops.

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To make a comparison to cars, a compact, lightweight battery-powered car is perfect as an urban run-about but is of little use to someone who is regularly covering long distances. Likewise, a senior company executive, who is constantly on the move, has different PC and working requirements than a customer service representative working set hours in a call centre.

Although the premise of desktop virtualisation is straightforward enough, the way in which the environment is delivered has to change according to worker needs. Citrix has identified five types of PC-based workers within most large organisations, ranging from task workers (who have low-end demands of their PCs) through to very mobile workers (who make big demands of their PC and access to business information). To match the end-user needs of these five types of workers, there are four core virtualisation technologies under the umbrella term “desktop virtualisation.” These fall into two basic categories, server side compute and client side compute.

Desktop virtualisation technologies that support low-end requirements, such as task workers, tend to revolve around server-side computing; applications are held in the data centre and delivered to the desktop display to the client.

Technologies that support higher end-user requirements, such as those demanded by contractors, freelancers and highly mobile executives, centre on client-side computing. In these cases, the desktop environment is delivered on demand for client side execution, supporting a wide range of PCs and enabling offline working in a virtualised environment.

So, what are the four sizes?

  • Hosted shared desktops: The most cost efficient form of desktop virtualisation (also known as Windows Remote Desktop Services) provides a locked down, streamlined and standardised environment with a core set of applications. This approach is easy to manage and low cost – making it well-suited to task workers that only require access to a set number of applications.
  • Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), or its synonym, hosted virtual desktop, was another early method of delivering desktop virtualisation. Once again, the data centre is an integral part of the solution, whereby complete multiple instances of a Windows OS are either hosted on shared servers or single instances on dedicated blade PCs. VDI is therefore restricted to connected desktops only (LAN and WAN) and is typically for task-orientated employees and office-based knowledge workers. From the end-user perspective, the main difference between hosted shared desktops and VDI is that VDI preserves a personalised PC environment which can be securely delivered over any network to any device. While VDI can be appropriate for many users, perhaps even entire departments, it does not meet the needs of an entire organisation.
  • Local streamed desktops: Moving from server-centric computing towards the client side takes advantage of the local processing power of rich clients, while providing centralised single-image management of the desktop. It is well suited for government, schools and university labs that use diskless PCs for maximum data security, and also offers an easy, low-cost way for customers to get started with desktop virtualisation by keeping the data centre overhead to a minimum.
  • Local virtual machine-based desktops are the real cutting edge of desktop virtualisation; the newest desktop virtualisation technology which takes advantage of the latest generation of laptops, such as those with the Intel vPro series chip sets, with type 1 (bare metal) hypervisors. When working offline, the mobile knowledge worker is working in a virtualised environment supported by the PC itself, but when suitably connected changes to the operating systems, applications and user data are automatically synchronised with the data centre, bringing the benefits of centralised, single-instance management to mobile workers.

Whether motivated primarily by cost savings, business needs, or IT strategy, desktop virtualisation will play an increasing role in organisations of all kinds. Organisations can now serve every type of worker it has through the four core technologies that constitute desktop virtualisation, finally giving centralised IT management an approach that fits all, in four different sizes.

Niall Gilmore, Country Manager, Ireland, Citrix Systems

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