Virtual Desktops Still Don’t Cut It for Most Organizations

S. Schuchart

Summary Bullets:

  • VDI is getting attention again with work from home here to stay.
  • VDI is great on paper, but in reality is only practical in certain niche use cases.

One of the joys of technology is the sheer inventiveness.  New concepts, new technology, even old technology used in new ways; every time something new appears, the industry speculates endlessly about possible applications.  But sometimes good ideas end up not being the world-changing solutions that their inventors and cheerleaders had thought.  Usually this doesn’t mean the technology goes away, just that it is most suited for niche applications.  But the bigger the initial hype, the longer it takes.  The best example of that is virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI).  It’s a concept that’s been around for decades now.  While this is an over-simplification, VDI allows companies to host desktop operating systems (primarily Microsoft Windows) in their own data center and project them virtually to an endpoint, which is a piece of software installed locally on another computer.  To the end user, once they’ve started a VDI session, they see a standard corporate desktop, regardless of what they have installed locally.  This can also be done with individual software instead of the entire desktop.

Every few years, someone declares that *this* time VDI is really going to take off; that conditions are ripe.  This time, it is the work-from-home trend created by the COVID-19 pandemic.  To be frank, it’s a bit surprising that it has taken this long for vendors to dust off their VDI marketing and take another run at making VDI the default paradigm for end-user computing.  But the issues that have always limited VDI continue to plague it in one form or another.

It’s hard to blame the industry or vendors for continually trotting out VDI.  On paper, VDI seems like a slam dunk for administering end-user desktops, providing security, and lowering overall operating costs.  Changes are only made to the end user’s profile, meaning the base operating system is always completely up to date, always refreshed with the latest.  Updating Windows, updating software, even ensuring that the machine is secure and virus-free becomes simple.  No more needing to reload end-user desktops.  Data is kept on company systems, never on the local machine, so backups can be handled centrally.  Virtual desktops, in general, have a low hardware requirement for endpoints, meaning less hardware refresh.  On top of that, virtual desktops can be used on BYOD hardware with no danger of data leakage or elaborate endpoint management solutions.  If an employee leaves, all that needs to be done is to revoke access to the virtual desktop environment.  All data is preserved, and the employee does not need to do anything other than simply uninstall the VDI client.  It looks and sounds like a nirvana for IT and end user alike.

But the reality isn’t as good.  There still needs to be a physical PC at the endpoint and all of the maintenance and distribution issues that go along with it.  Network issues and latency can turn the desktop experience into existential agony.  Older software can act strangely, and it creates a hair-pinning effect where even cloud traffic has to travel back through the corporate data center, raising costs.  Worst of all, it costs more in hardware to run.  Standard desktop or laptop hardware that doesn’t have a fruit logo on it is a commodity and cheap.  The actual virtual desktop runs in the data center, on data center-grade hardware, which is quite a bit more expensive than desktop hardware – to say nothing of the accompanying storage and networking requirements.  Instead of relatively low-cost desktop support technicians, you also now need certified data center personnel trained to create and run virtual desktop instances.  Then companies have to pay for the desktop virtualization software to boot.  When you add in the rise of SaaS or cloud-based applications which can provide many of the benefits of the virtual desktop, the picture gets even bleaker.  The costs and complexity of the solution precludes VDI from becoming the default for end-user desktops, despite looking like a bulletproof solution on paper. 

Now that does not mean that VDI is useless.  There are plenty of good use cases for VDI, including many retail environments and companies that need to provide IT services to temporary employees, especially on a worldwide or field basis.  Certain companies, institutions, and governments may find the security benefits of virtual desktops to far outweigh the downsides.  Only a careful examination of your particular use case against the pitfalls of virtual desktops can help you determine if they can fill a need in your organization.  

What do you think?

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