Client Endpoint Virtualization

Posted on April 18, 2012

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I recently heard about a school district that had not only completed a client endpoint virtualization implementation, but had fully integrated it within their enterprise in a single phase.  With the exception of administrators and other key personnel positions, every traditional desktop within the system had been converted to a VDI (Virtual Device Interface) infrastructure.  Having been a part of trial-based Client Endpoint Virtualization projects for the past six years with mixed results, I was more than curious to learn more about their lofty undertaking and what types of results they were witnessing as a result.
Their backend infrastructure was supported by Cisco Blade Servers and EMC SANs.  Each blade server served as a VMware Host Server, each one hosting dozens of virtual desktops.  The desktops were presented to the user through a dumb terminal at each desk, similar to a Wyse terminal station.  The Technology Director told me they were very pleased with the project thus far.  He said that the solution provided them a great deal of flexibility from a management perspective.  The VMware hosts servers were set to automatically startup/shutdown virtual workstations to meet real-time fluctuating demand flows, allowing them to only use the resources required on a daily basis.  The solution also allotted a high level of redundancy for the backend as well as VMware seamlessly handled the migration of virtual desktops from one host to another in the case of a server failure.   In addition, if a user’s dumb terminal malfunctioned, the IT staff could replace the terminal in a matter of fifteen minutes or less since the virtual desktop wasn’t tied to the hardware in any way.   He also felt that they no longer had to lock down the network as much as in the past since desktops could be reconfigured and put out for production very quickly.
It is important to point out that Client Endpoint Virtualization doesn’t provide any sizable degree of initial cost savings as this type of solution requires a substantial investment on the backend.  CEV solution providers do trumpet the idea of continued cost savings down the road in the form of less management and support as well as a higher degree of user uptime but critics argue that those are simply promised savings until they are proven with hard figures.
The most confusing aspect of Client Endpoint Virtualization is that there are so many models and solutions to consider.  Basically, there are three types of models:

1. Server Hosted Remote Desktop Virtualization The above example is indicative of the solution mentioned above.  The two main categories of this model are Shared VDI and Common Desktop.  Shared VDI is suited for users who require a personalized environment.  In a Common Desktop environment, all users share the same basic desktop that provides little if any personalization.  Terminal Servers and Microsoft’s Remote Desktop is a classic example of this type of scenario.

2. Client Hosted Desktop Virtualization Again, there are two primary categories of this model.  Users of Windows 7 may be aware of the virtual XP desktop (XP Mode) that they can run in order to operate legacy applications that are not supported by Windows 7.  This is a classic example of Local OS Virtualization.  Another category is the Client Side Hypervisor which is basically a client localized miniature version of the Server Hosted Remote model.  This type of solution should only be considered for power users and those who require multiple operating systems and significant resources.

3. Application Virtualization This is probably the most misunderstood virtualization model of the three in my opinion.  There are four primary categories of this model.  The first is Application Isolation which isolates the application from interacting with other system and application components.  Second is Remote Application Virtualization where end users access a single user application hosted on a server within the enterprise itself.  Application Streaming is another category that is similar but incrementally streams the application to the user.  The final category is web based applications.

Though vendors have been touting the benefits of client endpoint virtualization for years, we are just now witnessing the capabilities that have been advertised but not quite achieved until recently.  Just like the age of the cloud is creating a new paradigm in which local storage is less relevant each day, it is also doing the same for the local desktop.  The worlds of software and hardware have become completely separated and no longer dependent on one another, blurring the distinction of what a local desktop really is.  IT professionals stopped trying to discern a hardware based server from a virtual one several years ago.  Users will soon stop caring where their desktop comes from as well.

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