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Why VDI? And Why Now?

VDI has reached the tipping point

For most CIOs and IT managers, virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) isn't a new concept. In fact, many of them have dismissed it more than once amid concerns such as ROI, security and user experience.

But it's time to take a fresh look at VDI because a slew of new technologies have eliminated its biggest drawbacks - real and perceived. As a result, VDI - also known as end-user computing and desktop as a service - is now capable of addressing three of enterprise IT's biggest costs and headaches:

  • Management scalability: Today, as the number of desktops in an organization grows, so does the amount of staff and other resources required to manage them. VDI breaks that link and makes managing 1,000 desktops as easy as managing 10. This directly benefits the enterprise's bottom line and competitive position because, for example, IT staff is now freed to focus on revenue-generating tasks.
  • Greater control over security: With VDI, data resides entirely in a secure cloud rather than on a laptop's or desktop's hard drive. That architecture eliminates problems such as a device's theft or loss creating a security breach - and the embarrassment and regulatory scrutiny that comes with it. In fact, that's why, for example, some police departments have built their own data centers to implement VDI.

A cloud-based VDI service enables organizations to achieve the same benefit but without the expense of building and operating a data center. In the process, VDI enhances an organization's ability to comply with laws such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley, as well as industry-specific best practices.

  • Minimize Mobile's Complexity. Although the D in VDI stands for desktop, the architecture can be applied to tablets and smartphones too, eliminating the need for - and expense of - mobile device management (MDM) tools. These benefits extend to employee-provided smartphones and tablets, giving organizations an effective way to minimize the security risks that are a byproduct of a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy.

VDI also gives CIOs and IT managers an effective way to accommodate Google Apps (and Chromebook), Salesforce and other solutions where data resides outside of the enterprise, thus creating security concerns. For example, VMware has built-in Google Apps functionality.

VDI Has Reached the Tipping Point
If VDI has so many clear benefits, why isn't it already as common as cloud-based server services? One reason is the misconception that VDI centers around thin clients that lack the performance and functionality that today's business users require. The reality is that although VDI works very well in a thin client environment, which may be ideal for applications such as airport self-check-in kiosks, it also supports more generalized and even power user requirements using traditional PCs, Macs and tablets.

For mobile workers, smartphones and tablets offer superior performance and functionality compared to thin clients. That use case also suggests that the term VDI is too limited and that the broader "end-user computing" might be more appropriate.

In fact, VDI can provide the ideal environment for the specific task required. For example, if the task is a repetitive one, such as order entry or accounts payable, the virtual desktop can be provisioned with reduced CPU power but more storage. Meanwhile, a power user might be provisioned with more CPU and memory than a typical laptop provides. As a result, VDI has the inherent flexibility to increase employee productivity by overcoming any device limitations.

Connectivity is another reason why VDI is at a tipping point. Even remote offices and telecommuters' homes now typically have fiber, copper or microwave with the high speeds and low latency necessary to provide a business-class user experience. For mobile workers, the wide availability of HSPA+ and the growing availability of LTE make VDI practical from locations such as client sites and airports. In fact, Ericsson predicts that by 2016, 70 percent of cloud access will be over a wireless connection.

Some CIOs and IT managers might be concerned about the cost of that connectivity, especially cellular. That's a reasonable concern, but fixating on it means losing sight of the big picture. For example, consider how VDI eliminates the costs associated with:

  • Managing and maintaining large quantities of desktop and laptop PCs and Macs.
  • Owning and operating an MDM platform.
  • Fines and criminal penalties for breaches that violate laws such as HIPAA and Sarbanes-Oxley.
  • Being sued by citizens of European Union countries under the Safe Harbor directive.
  • Repairing a brand after coming under regulatory scrutiny, perhaps to the point of having a law nicknamed after your company.

In a sense, VDI is like VoIP, which was technologically viable for years yet never got any marketplace traction. But as broadband IP networks started to become common, VoIP became a practical and then desirable alternative for enterprise communications. From a network, user need and marketplace perspective, VDI is now at the tipping point where VoIP was a decade ago.

What Makes the Ideal VDI Solution?
When assessing their options for implementing VDI, CIOs and IT managers should focus on services that:

  • Support 100 percent self-service and rapid turn-up. For example, look for VDI solutions that have a portal where customers can create an account, configure their services and have them delivered immediately to their PCs, tablets and smartphones.
  • Enable importing and cloning of existing desktop configurations. Why waste time and resources re-inventing the wheel each time?
  • Give IT managers the ability to create and manage different sets of desktop pools. This should include the ability to add, delete, stop, start, reboot and reimage in real time.
  • Provide redundant, highly available physical infrastructure linked with best-in-class hypervisor virtualization technologies.

These features provide an ideal solution - not just for a particular organization, but also as a catalyst for mass VDI adoption.

SoftBank and VMWare are among the companies that recognize why VDI could have levels of adoption and revenue comparable to those of cloud-based server solutions. For example, earlier this year, SoftBank licensed 8x8's Zerigo enterprise cloud software to create a VDI solution for enterprises in Japan and abroad.

SoftBank's VDI initiative is noteworthy for at least two reasons. First, the company has a history of betting big and presciently on emerging opportunities. Second, SoftBank is a major LTE operator in Japan and is in the midst of buying Sprint to expand its global LTE footprint. VDI gives SoftBank - and other mobile operators - a value-added solution to attract enterprises to their LTE service. That goes back to the point about how bandwidth has evolved from being a barrier to VDI adoption to a catalyst, and it's one more example of why VDI is coming soon to a PC or tablet near you.

More Stories By Andrew Schwabecher

Andrew Schwabecher is the General Manager of Cloud Hosting at 8x8, Inc, responsible for growing 8x8's managed hosting and cloud server infrastructure businesses. Prior to 8x8, he was the founder of Central Host - a managed hosting company based in the Silicon Valley providing managed dedicated & virtualized server infrastructure. Central Host was acquired by 8x8 in May of 2010. Prior to Central Host, Andrew held software and systems engineering positions at Hewlett-Packard, Electronics for Imaging, and ActiveVideo Networks. Andrew holds a degree in computer science from the University of California at Santa Cruz.

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