Q&A: Managing a Heterogeneous Environment of Virtualized and Physical Desktops

What's behind the move to mixing physical and virtualized desktops in an enterprise?

What's behind the move to mixing physical and virtualized desktops in an enterprise? How can administrators move to a totally virtualized environment? For answers, we asked Nick Cavalanica, the vice president of Windows management at ScriptLogic. Nick has over 15 years of IT experience as a consultant, trainer, columnist, speaker, and author.

Enterprise Strategies: What's driving the move to heterogeneous desktop environments?

Nick Cavalanica: Gartner analysts predict that by 2015 virtualization will be part of nearly every aspect of an IT network. For many organizations, virtualization is no longer a question of "if" but "when." With this is mind, it is probable that on some level most IT administrators have already incorporated some form of virtualization or are looking to do so in the near future.

The overarching benefit is that virtualization makes computing resources more efficient and flexible -- whether an enterprise is focused on the server, the application, or the desktop. One big benefit is that virtualization allows companies to update their computing infrastructures without replacing legacy hardware or investing in lots of new equipment.

The problem is that despite how attractive virtualization is, it's unlikely that a company will move to a totally virtual infrastructure. Most organizations are using a hybrid approach; they're utilizing a mix of physical, virtual, and terminal environments to keep users connected to company resources.

Streamed applications and a user environment can be applied as easily to a physical desktop as a virtual desktop. As long as the end results are the same, end users get a secure, consistent, and functioning work environment.

How are managing a virtual and physical desktop different?

First, let me point out that there are a lot of similarities. IT administrators should look at the virtual desktop the same way as they look at the physical desktop. The needs of the user remain the same: they need to access a consistent, secure and functional working environment.

From my perspective, the optimal desktop management tool has three elements:

  • First, it offers comprehensive, centralized configuration to ensure a consistent experience for users
  • Second, it enforces security. Once the desktop is set up, administrators have to manage security policies, device lockdown, patching, and anti-malware initiatives to secure the user and the network they are working on
  • Finally, you need real-time validation. If the user experience is going to be based on the user's current needs, then any validation for determining whether a particular desktop element should be applied needs to be done at the time of configuration

The rate of adoption of virtual desktops is still quite low. Why is that?

Desktop virtualization can provide great benefits, such as reduced total cost of ownership and secure on-demand access, but there are specific elements that prevent homogenous virtual environments.

For example, virtualization requires that users are connected to the server, and remote workers who are working offline still have to be able to access their applications. By the same token, remote workers who deal with large graphics files (such as designers working from home) need high application performance when screen updates are sent across the network.

According to Lehman Brothers analyst Tim Luke, only about four percent of desktops will be virtualized by 2012, so most companies adopting a virtual desktop strategy are likely to support a "hybrid environment" of physical and virtual desktops in the meantime.

As the environment becomes increasingly complex and heterogeneous, IT administrators will need to consider management tools that support those environments. In some organizations, one person may migrate from a virtual to a physical desktop throughout the day, while another end user may use a virtual desktop when at home and a physical desktop at the office. This is where seamless management comes into play.

IT management issues will not disappear with the advent of virtualization. In fact, there will be an increasing need for desktop management solutions that can help administrators bridge both worlds. As companies embrace virtual desktop initiatives, traditional management tools must be able to extend their capabilities to different desktop environments regardless of whether they are physical or virtual.

What are the biggest mistakes IT makes when virtualizing their desktops?

The biggest is treating virtualized desktops differently than traditional one. Take these two example mindsets and suggested solutions:

  • 1) Thinking a new VM image needs to be built, complete with every possible app needed (or multiple images are created). Instead, take the opportunity to roll out a standardized OS (just like you would with a traditional desktop) and have your desktop management platform push out the apps/updates/patches needed to bring the machine up to date.
  • 2) Thinking the needs of the user are different on a virtual desktop. They aren't. Users still need a consistent, secure, and functional workstation that meets their needs while still being compliant with IT mandates. IT needs a centralized desktop management solution in place (which they may already have) that can push out the configuration to the virtual desktop and differentiate between the virtual and physical desktop (and add Terminal Services/Presentation Server desktops into this while we're at it) to ensure an appropriate configuration (e.g., users connecting to a virtual desktop only come in from home, so a particular security standard is enforced, versus a physical desktop within the office). The user's needs are the same, regardless of the type of desktop. IT's needs may change, so have a system in place to meet both the user and IT's needs.

Does an enterprise always gain the benefits they expect?

I think that depends on the intent of the implementation. If an organization is looking to meet a niche need for a subset of users, such as virtual desktops for remote salespeople, I think the obvious benefits, such as remote accessibility to apps and data, will be easily achieved. If the intent is to lower the cost of desktop ownership by virtualizing every desktop in an environment at once, I think the organization is going to quickly realize that all they did was add a level of complexity (the virtualization) to their existing desktop environment.

What advice can you give, or best practices can you offer, to administrators who are moving to this heterogeneous environment?

If they want to get the most out of virtualization's promised benefits, administrators need tools to manage the different IT worlds. However, IT administrators cannot think that virtualization is the universal remedy for IT manageability. On the other hand, a managed approach, which supports a seamless blend of physical and virtual infrastructures, could actually accelerate the strategic use of the enterprise technology infrastructure and be the perfect antidote IT control issues.

IT wants a desktop that meets the needs of the user that is centrally managed, regardless of the underlying technology used to deliver the desktop (physical, virtual, etc.). Coming up with a seamless method of management (that is, don't treat the virtual desktops any differently than traditional desktops) will simplify the process of creating a heterogeneous environment (mostly because the environment isn't being treated as heterogeneous). The formula is simple:

  • Develop a base OS, regardless of virtual, blade or physical
  • Employ a desktop management platform that will update desktops to the latest states of security and productivity via apps, patches, service packs, and settings
  • Define the desktop configuration (in some cases down to the minutia, like registry values) to ensure a secure, consistent, and functional desktop and be able to differentiate the needs from one platform to another
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