Posts Tagged 'VDI'

Imagining the Possibilities: WWYD With VDI?

Virtual desktop infrastructure — otherwise known as VDI — is, without a doubt, a hot topic.

When we first started down the VDI path in January 2011, I agreed to document and share our experiences — for better or for worse — to help showcase the benefits of desktop virtualization. And as a result, I’ve talked and written *a lot* on VDI over the last year. I was a guest blogger on VMware’s End User Computing site (see posts here: VDI Right on the Money; Out on a Limb With Virtual Desktops; and 10 VDI Lessons from the Real World) and have contributed to the eCIO Forum on the subject; I’ve hosted a desktop virtualization workshop and presented in several webinars and conferences (my BrightTalk session was ranked one of their “Top 6 IT Infrastructure Webinars of 2011” — how cool is that?!?); and fielded emails and calls on an almost weekly basis from colleagues looking for recommendations or advice as they begin their own VDI projects.

The topics I’ve covered, and questions I frequently receive, are generally along the lines of:

  • Is it really as easy as vendors make it out to be? (Not always, but what ever is?)
  • Will we save money doing VDI? (Depends)
  • How can we best prepare? (Plan, test, revise, plan, test, and plan some more)
  • Should we even be considering this, especially if the savings are unclear? (Absolutely!)

Most institutions, including my own, are looking towards VDI to improve their desktop management capabilities, save PC refresh dollars, expand access to institutional software, and reduce their carbon footprint — and roughly in that order. These are all great goals, and certainly reason enough to implement virtual desktops. But they are also reflective of incremental (however large) improvements, rather than true innovation.

What do I mean? Well, we’re using virtual desktops to replace physical desktops, but in many (most? all?) implementations, the model we’re implementing against is still the same. Students still do work in computer labs — physical ones with virtual machines or virtual ones, but labs nonetheless. Faculty and staff still have one office with one client connecting to one “desktop”. VDI makes it a lot better, but….

With VDI, so many other things are possible.

Employees, for example, don’t need to be tethered to one device or location, or even one desktop. We could work from our own device(s) or provided ones, or both. We could use one desktop or several, depending on the task we need to accomplish and the software associated with it. We could structure flexible work environments that support the formation and re-formation of cross-functional teams as projects change.

For students, what if we looked at it from a class or individual level, instead of by lab? Perhaps we could provision desktops by student, so that an entering freshman receives her own virtual desktop that automatically updates with software she needs, based on course enrollment. Or we could enable faculty to teach — in real time — with students working remotely “in the field” on laptops and tablets and other mobile devices, but still view and share student work across the class.

We are over a year in to our VDI implementation, and are just now starting to scratch the surface of VDI’s true potential for innovation. Imagine if we started over, designed our ideal environment first, and *then* applied VDI to it…what could we do? What would *you* do?

Virtual Desktops: Persistent, Non-Persistent, or….Both?

Use cases are critically important in virtual desktop implementations. Identifying and understanding your various use cases will help you make more effective decisions about your VDI architecture — the underlying platform and management technologies, broker, clients, communication protocols (RDP, PCoIP, etc), storage requirements, and so on. Some use cases may be better supported by one system design and set of technologies, other use cases may work better with an alternate design and/or technologies. And no matter how badly you want to be 100% virtual, some use cases may not be well suited for VDI at all. At least not yet.

While the specific details of each use case will vary, all use cases can generally be distilled down to two types — persistent or non-persistent. Non-persistent desktops refresh themselves to their original state on shutdown/startup; they don’t maintain user data, personalization settings, or any other changes. Persistent desktops do, and therefore can be more complicated to work with, often requiring more storage, a potentially different backup structure, and a host of other considerations ranging from how to handle access to local USB devices and printers to user needs for installing personal software and administrative rights. Which is why many institutions focus their VDI projects on non-persistent desktops.

At Menlo, we are rolling out both types of virtual desktops, but decided to start with our simpler non-persistent ones. Or so we thought. It turns out that while our lab and learning space *do* refresh themselves on shutdown/start up (we use a software called Deep Freeze to maintain a steady state in our physical environment), and *do not* maintain user data or other personalization/changes the user makes, they have persistent attributes nonetheless. So they’re *both* persistent and non-persistent at the same time. Oy.

What makes our environment both? While we do expect our desktops to return to their original state, that original state includes a customized desktop background and specific positioning of icons on the desktop, among other things. This isn’t that difficult to do with a physical image, but in a VDI environment this spans both persistent and non-persistent attributes. To make matters even more challenging, some of the software we’re using on our presumably non-persistent desktops requires level of persistence to, well, work properly. Or at all.

These challenges are all solvable — but possibly not in the ways that you think. To manage icons we found a program called RocketDock, so instead of ordering the actual desktop icons we get rid of these with an AD script on log in and replace them with an application that serves up icons in a configuration we set at the application level. Scripting at various levels has also helped address some of our persistent/non-persistent issues. (For the record, and in the interest of full disclosure: our VDI solution is a combination of VMWare View and Unidesk, and we’ve been working with Rob Zylowski and the folks at @UnideskCorp to solve these problems. Their creativeness and brilliance in finding solutions to these challenges cannot be overstated.)

The key, in my opinion, to addressing at least some of these issues is understanding what need you’re actually trying to address, and then figuring out the best way to solve that problem. And I don’t mean the need for ordered icons or specific desktop background — those were just solutions that were designed to meet the need in your current environment. There might be different, possibly even better, ways to solve it in a new virtual environment. Or you may find that because of the differences in the environment, the need simply no longer exists.

Which brings me right back to….yep, you guessed it….use cases. Knowing and understanding them is *key*. Once you’ve figure out “how” you do things for each use case, don’t forget to ask “why”. And when you think you’ve got them all figured out, go back to the drawing board and take a look at them again. And again.

Death of the Computer Lab?

Question: What are the most popular buzzwords in IT?

Answer: Last year, the “cloud”. This year (so far), “VCL” and “VDI”. As in, if you can build a virtual computing lab (VCL) using virtual desktop infrastructire (VDI), you can shut down at least some of your computing labs and save money as a result.


Everything we know about computing labs indicates that lab usage has *increased*, even as the number of student-owned computers/laptops has risen to near universal levels. Let me rephrase that. Other options exist, but usage has increased. And yet we believe that the introduction of another option (ie, VCL/VDI) will now decrease usage/need?

Ummm….remember when computers and email were supposed to help us move to the “paperless” office? Yeah, I’m getting more paper than *ever* these days, too.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge fan of VDI. We have a virtualization strategy at Menlo that extends far beyond the lab (more on that later), and are very excited about VDI’s potential — as a change agent for how we deploy desktops across the institution, and as an extension of the physical lab. But not as a replacement for it.

Here’s how I see it…

Today we have specialized labs that each run a different set of software. So to teach a Photoshop class, you have to reserve lab #1, and to teach an accounting class with Quickbooks or another accounting application, you have to reserve lab #2.

A VCL/VDI solution changes this, because you can virtualize your Photoshop desktop or accounting desktop, and then allow access to that desktop from any lab, or really, any location. This enables your faculty to reserve any lab they want, but unless you have dozens of underutilized labs, doesn’t change the fact that faculty will still want to teach their classes using the software, which generally means, in a lab somewhere.

And keeping in mind that virtually everything we do is computer dependent these days, and more and more disciplines/professions are using specialized software, the instructional usage of labs is only bound to increase. In fact, we built another instructional computing lab at Menlo last summer, and it’s already nearing max capacity (and usage in our other labs has not decreased).

Does that mean you shouldn’t explore VCL/VDI? No!!

In my view, there are a good number of benefits that VDI can provide your constituents, and your staff. Better access to software, increased life of hardware (you can run a virtual desktop on the equipment in your physical labs, too, not just in the ether), easier image/desktop management, greater flexibility, simplified support, and so on. Presumably lower costs too.

So is there a strong case for virtualizing your desktops? I believe so, yes. But as for those reports about the death of the computer lab as a result? Ehhhh, not so much.

My Elevator Pitch

When I was in sales and marketing, oh so many years ago, we spent hours and days, months even, perfecting the perfect 30-second “elevator” pitch. You know, the one that you use when someone asks you “so what do you do?” and you have a 30-second elevator ride to tell them? It usually goes something like…”I’m a [job title] for [company], the global leader in [some industry jargon]”.

In education it may be called something different, but we still have elevator pitches, generally speaking — some key points and messaging that’s important to get across when talking to a prospective student, faculty member, or donor.

What’s important about the elevator pitch is the description of who you work for, not really what you do for them. Usually. This past weekend, however, I realized that an elevator pitch might be in order for what I actually do, too.

You see, I went to a family event and saw distant relatives — the kind you only run into once every 5 to 10 years or so. The conversation that ensued went something like this:

Them: “It’s great to see you, how have you been? And what are you doing these days?”

Me: “I’m the CIO at Menlo College; been there aboutĀ  a year and a half.”

Them: “Menlo is a great school, congratulations! So….what’s a CIO?”

Me: “Chief information officer.”

Them: [looking a little glassy-eyed] “Information officer? So you handle information requests for the college? Or PR? Or…?”

Me: “Um, no…actually I manage the college’s technology. Like servers, and network, and computers…things like that.”

Them: [even more glass-eyed, but feeling compelled to ask the obligatory follow-up question] “Wow, sounds exciting! So what are you working on these days?”

And here’s where I need that elevator pitch. The truth is we’re working on bringing up a learning management system, moving some of our servers to the cloud, and rolling out virtual desktops (VDI). Really exciting stuff! But nearly *everyone* I know gets more than a little glassy-eyed when we start talking cloud computing or VDI. It’s conceptual stuff, with no clear definitions — even within the profession.

So explaining it to a non-techie…fugetaboutit. Except, of course, I can’t. I won’t. I think this stuff is waaaay too cool to *not* explain. šŸ™‚

@rclemmons on Twitter

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