VDI, the Next Generation or the Final Frontier?

After sitting through a virtualization sales pitch focused around Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI) this afternoon I had several thoughts on the topic I thought may be blog worthy.

VDI has been a constant buzzword for a few years now, riding the coattails of server virtualization.  For the majority of those years you can search back and find predictions from the likes of Gartner touting ‘This is the year for VDI’ or making other similar statements, typically with projected growth rates that don’t ever happen.  What you won’t see is those same analyst organizations reaching back the year after and answering to why they over hyped it, or were blatantly incorrect. (Great idea for a yearly blog here, analyzing previous years failed predictions.)

The reasons they’ve been incorrect vary over the years starting with technical inadequacy of the infrastructures and lack of real understanding as an industry.  When VDI first hit the forefront many of us (myself included) made the assumption desktops could be virtualized the same as servers (Windows is Windows right?)  What we neglected to account for is the plethora of varying user applications, the difficulty of video and voice, and other factors such as boot storms which are unique and or more amplified within VDI environments than their server counterparts.  From there for a short while the VDI rollout horror stories and memories of failed Proof of Concepts slowed adoption and interest for a short period.

Now we’re at a point where the technology can overcome the challenges and the experts are battle hardened with knowledge of success and failures in various environments; yet still adoption is slow.  Users are bringing new devices into the workplace and expecting them to interface with enterprise services; yet still adoption is slow.  We supposedly have a more demanding influx of younger generation employees who demand remote access from their chosen devices; yet still adoption is slow.  This doesn’t mean that VDI isn’t being adopted, nor that the market share numbers aren’t increasing across the board; it’s just slow.

The reason for this is that our thinking and capabilities for service delivery have surpassed the need for VDI in many environments. VDI wasn’t an end-goal but instead an improvement over individually managed, monitored, and secured local end-user OS environments.  The end-goal isn’t removing the OS tie to the hardware on the end-point (which is what VDI does) but instead removing the applications tie to the OS; or more simply put: removing any local requirements for access to the services.  Starting to sound like cloud?

Cloud is the reason enterprise IT hasn’t been diving into VDI head first, the movement to cloud services has shown that for many we may have passed the point where VDI could show true Return On Investment (ROI) before being obsoleted.  Cloud is about delivering the service to any web connected end-point on-demand regardless of platform (OS.)  If you can push the service to my iOS, Android, Windows, Linux, etc. device without the requirement for a particular OS, then what’s the need for VDI?

To use a real world example I am a Microsoft zealot, I use Windows 7, Bing for search and only IE for browsing on my work and personal computers (call me retro.)  I also own an iPad, mainly due to the novelty and the fact that I got addicted to ‘Flight Control’ on a friends iPad at release of the original.  I occasionally use the iPad for what I’d call ‘productivity work’ related to my primary role or side projects.  Using my iPad I do things like: Access corporate email for the company I work for and my own, review files, access Salesforce, and Salesforce Chatter, and even perform some remote equipment demos, my files are seamlessly synched between my various other computers.  I do all of this without a Windows 7 virtual desktop running on my iPad, it’s all done through apps connected to these services directly.  In fact the only reason I have VDI client applications on my iPad is to demo VDI, not to actually work.

Now an iPad is not a perfect example, I’d never use it for developing content (slides, reports, spreadsheets, etc.) but I do use it for consuming content, email, etc.  To develop I turn to a laptop with full keyboard, screen and some monitor outputs.  This laptop may be a case for VDI but in reality why?  If the services I use are cloud based, public or private, and the data I utilize is as well, then the OS is irrelevant again.  With office applications moving to the cloud (Microsoft Office 365, Google Docs, etc.) along with many others, and many services and applications already there, what is the need for a VDI infrastructure?

VDI like server virtualization is really a band-aid for an outdated application deployment process which uses local applications tied to a local OS and hardware.  Virtualizing the hardware doesn’t change that model but can provide benefits such as:

  • Centralized control
  • Added security
  • More efficient backup
  • Support staff reduction/repurposing
  • Broader device support
  • Reduced administrative overhead
  • etc.

Once the wound of our current application deployment model has fully healed, the band-aid comes off and we have service delivery from cloud computing environments free of any OS or hardware ties.

So friends don’t let friends virtualize desktops right?

Not necessarily.  As shown above VDI can have significant advantages over standard desktop deployment.  Those advantages can drive business flexibility and reduce costs.  The difficult questions will become

  • Whether your organization can utilize a pure service delivery model based on security needs, organizational readiness, application/service readiness, etc.
  • Whether the VDI gains will be seen before the infrastructure can be replaced with a fully service based model

Many organizations will still see benefits from deploying VDI today because the ROI of VDI will occur more quickly than the ability to deliver all business apps as a service.  Additionally VDI is an excellent way to begin getting your feet wet with the concepts of supporting any device with organizational controls and delivering services remotely.  Coupling VDI with things like thin apps will put you one step closer while providing additional flexibility to your IT environment.

When assessing a VDI project you’ll want to take a close look at the time it will take your organization to hit ROI with the deployment and assess that against the time it would take to move to a pure service delivery model (if your organization would be capable of such.)  VDI is a fantastic tool in the data center tool bag, but like all others it’s not the right tool for every job.  VDI is definitely the Next Generation but it is not The Final Frontier.

Additional fun:

Here are some sales statements that are commonly used when pitching VDI, all of these I consider to be total hogwash.  Try out or modify a few of my one line answers next time your vendors there telling you about the wonderful world of VDI and why you need it now.

Vendor: ‘<Insert analyst here (Gartner, etc.)> says that 2011 is the year for VDI.’  Alternatively ‘<Insert analyst here (Gartner, etc.)> predicts VDI to grow X amount this year.’

My answer: ‘That’s quite interesting, let’s adjourn for now and reconvene when you’ve got data on <Insert analyst here (Gartner, etc.)>’s VDI predictions for the previous 5 years.’

Vendor: ‘The next generation of workers coming from college demand to use the devices and services they are used to, to do their job.’

My answer: ‘Excellent, they’ll enjoy working somewhere that allows that, we have corporate policies and rules to protect our data and network.’  This won’t work in every case as Mike Stanley (@mikestanley) pointed out to me, universities for example have student IT consumers who are the paying customers, this would be much more difficult in such cases.

Vendor: ‘People want a Bring Your Own (BYO) device model.’

My Answer: ‘If I bring my own device and the fact that I want to matters, what makes you think I’ll want your desktop?  Just give me application or service.’

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Comments

  1. Hey Joe,
    Good write-up. In digging into the desktop space, most of the experts that I talked to were strongly opposed to the VDI term. There is an opportunity to provide new functionality, especially mobility and security for desktop environments by changing to some of the new options which many options beyond simply replacing a Windows desktop with a virtual desktop image (various cloud options and more). Dave Vellante and I got a chance to grab a great interview with virtual desktop guru Brian Madden which you can see here: http://wikibon.org/blog/the-whole-desktop-virtualization-story/
    I also wrote up my thoughts on the fragmented ecosystem here: http://wikibon.org/wiki/v/The_Journey_of_Desktops_From_Virtualization_to_Any_Device_Anywhere
    I’ve had lots of vendors telling me about great growth rates of deployments of desktop virtualization (the financial and government verticals especially), but I’m definitely not ready to call 2011 the year of VDI.
    Cheers,
    Stu

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    • Stu,

      Great feedback, and thanks for reading as always! Thanks for the homework as well, I’m off to Wikibon to catch my daily dose. Looking forward to catching up at VMworld.

      Joe

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  2. Stuart Boardman says:

    Excellent post. About time someone laid this ghost to rest. Thanks.

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  3. Joe,

    Great post man!!! The majority of the CIOs are still concerned with the “nuts and bolts” of VDI, i.e. Storage, Security, etc. which again I think they are getting too far into the technical weeds and not enough at the higher levles that they need to be at. They need to be more focused on the business value benefits of virtual desktops and how it can help drive growth and allow for improved performance/productivity. They are so focused on the “nuts and bolts” that they aren’t developing the Service Strategy, Service Design, Service Transition, and Service Operation. This will eventually end up in the typical IT Sisyphean struggle that IT always ends up dealing with.

    Most CIOs and IT executives today prefer the “what is” as opposed to the innovation path of “what could be”. Traditional IT executives are not willing to spend time in the “dragon gap”. They are under the illusion that the solution to a problem exists in the past, therefore all we have to do is reach back and grab a solution from the “solution shelf” as if we were buying a pair of pants from the read to wear rack. This does not work in this era of the consumerization of IT.

    A lot of the contention that organizations are seeing with virtual desktops (in whatever flavor they use) can be mitigated by actually following some ITSM processes. With the right service strategy these points of contention can be better understood and handled along with possibly forming a new organization within IT to handle this technology (again covering whatever flavor of virtual desktops are used). In my opinion all Virtual desktop solutions should be gathered under one new organization within IT. At this point the organization needs to follow a very standard phased approach, starting with.

    1. Service Strategy Phase: Whereby the new organization within IT determines the needs, priorities, demands and relative importance for a virtual desktop service. The organization then needs to identify the value being created through a virtual desktop service and the predicted financial resources required to design, deliver and support them.
    2. Service Design Phase: Here is really where the rubber starts to meet the road. The architecture teams kick off the design for the infrastructure, the processes and the support mechanisms needed to meet the availability requirements of the customer. By engaging the necessary teams and individuals at this juncture of the Service Design, the “turf wars” can be minimized if not completely mitigated.
    3. Service Transition Phase: With the right teams and individuals assembled and working together, they can then validate that the Service meets the functional and technical fitness criteria to justify release to the customer.
    4. Service Operation Phase: Here is where the creation of the new organization within IT would/should be responsible for all current and future flavors of virtual desktops from server-based computing on down to the client-side hypervisor desktop virtualization that is coming. This new organization would be responsible for the monitoring of the ongoing availability being provided. During this phase they would also manage and resolve incidents that affect Service Availability.
    5. Continual Service Improvement Phase: The new organization then ties directly into the team that manages and coordinates the collection of data, information and knowledge regarding the quality and performance of services supplied along with Service Management activities performed. Service Improvement Plans are developed and coordinated to improve any aspect involved in the management of virtual desktop services with the new support and operational team.

    These steps would lead eventually to the re-architecture of the obsolete IT business model we have today and better enable IT to adapt to the change that the business needs. The conversation needs to be elevated to beyond the device-centric and mobility conversation to the user persona virtualization and service oriented aspects. IT needs to stop prognosticating about the trends and start developing the next generation IT organization to keep up with those trends and stop being the “department of No”.

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  4. Sorry Joe, your suggestion that the cloud is responsible for the low adoption rates for VDI is way off.

    Yes, there have been many VDI pilots that have come unstuck, but the reasons you’ve given for the failure are either not the problem, or problems that have already been solved. Remote Desktop Services (what we used to call Terminal Services) tackled the vast majority of application performance and compatibility issues, video and voice services, and endpoint proliferation challenges that you raised as slowing VDI adoption years ago. The sudden concentration of high load levels seen in Boot storms have been an engineering challenge that the architects and engineers behind large cap remote Desktop Services environments have been aware of for years. Granted in VDI the hotspot has moved from the Remote Desktop Services server to the SAN, and the tools used to resolve these problems have changed, but the fundamental problem is little different. Concentrating the IOPS needed to support most VDI solutions into conventional SAN platforms is frightfully expensive (I have a simple CapEx cost model that can be used to demonstrate this here > http://blog.simonbramfitt.com/2011/06/a-simple-vmware-view-capex-cost-model-r-1-1/ ), but solutions such as those offered by Atlantis Computing and Virsto are available that can dramatically reduce this cost. The challenges inherent in the consumerization of IT that is personified by Gen-Y was harnessed and adopted by Citrix as a marketing message in favor of XenApp and XenDesktop long before it reached media saturation. So really all of these are solved problems.

    The real reasons why VDI adoption is not proceeding as many analysts have predicted has nothing to do with the cloud, or the problems outlined above. Rather it is that VDI is only one of many competing desktop virtualization solutions that is available today. VDI has to compete with old-school Remote Desktop Services where it is far more cost-effective for delivering small numbers of applications to large numbers of users, and the next generation desktop virtualization platforms that have sprung up in the last few years.

    I was fortunate enough to moderate a panel session at Citrix Synergy in May where the CTO’s of Desktone, Kaviza, MokaFive, Virtual Computer, and Wanova, all agreed that the opportunity inherent in desktop virtualization was not in anyone solutions ability to run on top of a hypervisor, but to take advantage of new ways of looking at platform management. It is the ability to integrate operating system, application, and personalization layers that matters to desktop virtualization (including VDI) whether you are looking at mature systems vendors such as Citrix and VMware or startups like those on the panel.

    regards

    Simon

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    • Simon,

      Thanks for reading and the comment. I don’t beleive I stated that cloud is the only reason for the current slowed adoption, or that I stated anywhere that an y of these are new problems unique to VDI. As I stated many of the initial VDI problems came from data center and server virtualization experts blindly attcking desktop virtualization, this was common, and possibly more common than Terminal Services and Remote Desktop engineers running the deployment. So in these cases while the problem itself wasn’t new it was new to the teams deploying it. Excacerbating this was the fact that many of the companies deploying VDI initially had never touched any remote desktop or terminal services environments, other than server admin at most.

      I agree that there is a lot of other competing products that challenge VDI and that’s actually the point of the post. Cloud is the term I use, and a key factor but the real factor is people are carefully looking at the best ways to deliver the services they need to do business and not just an advancement on the broken way they do it now.

      Joe

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      • Don’t you just hate that, when you say something well thought out and informative and then someone gets completely the wrong message.

        Which is good I guess, because I really enjoy reading your posts.

        Regards

        Simon

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        • Simon,

          No worries and I appreciate the additional thoughts and info. I definitely neglected to discuss the terminal services and remote desktop systems that have been around much longer than VDI and bring out some of the other joint services that are available to customers today without full blown VDI. Additionally products like Atlantis computing are exactly the kinds of tools I’m talking about that are helping to solve the VDI technical challenges. Thanks for the input and keep reading.

          Joe

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  5. I believe this is among the most imtorpant information for me. And i am glad reading your write-up. But want to remark on some general points, The internet internet site style is excellent, the articles is truly nice : D. Good job, cheers

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  6. That’s the smart thinking we could all benefit from.

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  1. [...] solutions and may not be the right 3-5 year goal.  I’ve expressed my thoughts previously: http://www.definethecloud.net/vdi-the-next-generation-or-the-final-frontier. Lastly we agreed that the key leaders in this space are still VMware and Citrix.  While each [...]

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