Should Small Businesses Adopt Desktop Virtualization?

by Drew Robb

Desktop virtualization can reduce maintenance headaches and save time, but don't expect cost-cutting to be one of the benefits. Is it right for your business? Here's what you need to consider.

The concept of server virtualization has caught on at many small businesses – consolidating many poorly utilized servers onto a handful of physical boxes and creating a large number of virtual servers. Now the same idea is catching fire with regard to desktop computers.

The appeal is obvious. Why put up with all the hassle of maintaining PCs under every desk? They require constant attention in terms of software patches, new anti-virus signatures, backups and more. The promise of desktop virtualization is that it centralizes those tasks while potentially improving performance.

On the downside, though, it demands a level of IT sophistication that isn't present in many small businesses. There is also a sizable upfront cost. And if you do it wrong, performance can suffer badly. 

But for some small businesses, particularly those considering a change out of their entire stock of aging PCs, desktop virtualization could turn out to be a smart long-term investment.  

Here are some of the key questions that small business owners should consider.

Desktop Virtualization: Is it Right for Your Business?

1. Is Desktop Virtualization Cheaper?

Some vendors may say yes. But the shorter and safer answer is no.

"Saving money should not be one of the criteria for considering desktop virtualization for the chief reason that the technology really doesn't save money," said Andy Melmed, vice president of enterprise architecture at Sanbolic. "Desktop virtualization does not come for free, so if the price tag ends up outweighing its inherent benefits, it would probably not be worth pursuing."

2. Does (Business) Size Matter?  

VMware believes that desktop virtualization can work for even small operations.

"The time and resource savings apply to any size business, and we have customers with as few as ten desktops who have turned to VMware to virtualize their desktops," said Betty Junod, VMware's director of desktop product marketing, end-user computing.

However, it really makes no sense for small companies with just a few desktops, and companies that have a simplistic IT set up. Further, companies that lack savvy IT personnel – either employees or contractors – should probably avoid it.

3. What are the Advantages of Desktop Virtualization? 

Desktop virtualization can slash the time you spend managing PCs by centrally delivering desktops from the main server or server room. The people tasked with that function can perform administrative and support operations on all desktop resources in much less time. For instance, you can handle tasks such as providing a desktop for new users, security patching, and updating operating systems or applications from one screen without leaving your desk. 

"The basic benefits from having the operating system, applications, and data reside in a centrally-managed IT facility include lower IT costs (such as upgrading operating systems once at a central site rather than at each individual desktop) and greater security," said David Hill, an analyst with the Mesabi Group.

4. Can Desktop Virtualization Provide Mobile Access?

Desktop virtualization frees employees to work from pretty much anywhere by separating them (and their files/applications/settings) from a specific piece of hardware. Some virtualization platforms provide simplified terminals (no bulky desktop PC under the table) where users log on to whatever device is available.

Virtualizing the desktop lets employees do their jobs wherever they are instead of having to bring everything back to a specific desk. You can extend this concept to where the "desktop" is available on a tablet or mobile phone when an employee travels.

"Virtual desktops can help small businesses improve security and employee productivity by extending the desktop and applications to Android or iOS mobile devices," said Junod. "Users gain the mobility on their device-of-choice, and IT maintains the control and security they need."

5. Should Server Virtualization Come First?

There used to be a definite progression whereby businesses that adopted server virtualization then addressed desktop virtualization. Some experts maintain that this is no longer necessary.

"Server virtualization is not necessarily a prerequisite to desktop virtualization," said Melmed. "If a company decides to deploy both technologies, one could be deployed before, during or after the other (depending upon which method is used)."

Desktop Virtualization and Small Business

6. How about High-End Workstations or Special Applications?

In some instances, a virtual desktop might not be a good idea.

"In cases where you have a high-end workstation running graphic-centric workloads, desktop virtualization may not be the best solution," said Ryan Makamson, systems engineer for the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science.

Additionally, not all applications are designed to be virtualized and, even if they are, it may be a waste of resources to create a customized virtual desktop for a single user.

"Companies really need to understand what they're trying to do and where they're trying to go, before blindly adopting this technology," said Dan Kusnetzky, an analyst at the Kusnetzky Group. "Properly designed and implemented, this approach can offer many benefits. Done improperly, it can reduce overall productivity and create staff satisfaction issues."

7. What Virtualization Products Should I Use?

Here's a sampling of the many desktop virtualization products and tools on the market.

VMware Horizon View

Suited to small businesses that wish to access desktop services from every device while in the office, remote and on the road. It can run Windows desktop applications on iPhone, iPad or Android mobile devices. This includes gesturing, swiping and screen pinching. Junod said the company offers it in increments of 10 or 100 licenses. Price: $250 per concurrent connection.

Dell Desktop Virtualization Solutions (DVS) Simplified Appliance

This product combines the latest Dell PowerEdge servers with factory-installed software in one appliance that you plug in. Dell says it takes four hours to install, and one appliance can support over 100 users. The virtualization software comes from Citrix, a big competitor of VMware. With support included, the solution costs less than $500 per user. On the client side are Dell Wyse cloud client computing devices, which are little more than a keyboard and a screen.  

Other major desktop virtualization players include:

8. What about the Rest of IT?

Do not embark upon desktop virtualization without a full assessment of your entire small business IT infrastructure. Some companies have implemented desktop virtualization only to see desktop speeds suffer badly. The mistake didn't lie with the chosen desktop virtualization software/hardware, however. It was caused by a small business IT infrastructure that wasn't capable of supporting virtualization. 

"Fast virtual desktops need fast networks, fast servers with fast storage," said Greg Schulz, an analyst with consulting firm StorageIO Group.

Desktop virtualization takes away much of the processing power and memory that used to sit under people's desks. That processing power and memory is instead centralized in the main server or the office server room. Failure to beef up those resources will mean sluggish response rates and dissatisfied users.  

"Deploying virtual desktops exchanges lower-cost desktop processing, memory and storage for higher-cost server processing, memory and storage," said Kusnetzky. "Furthermore, it is likely that the organization's network infrastructure will need to be enhanced to support the increased network traffic."

9. What are the Potential Storage Issues?

Remember disk drives spinning inside those individual desktops? When you virtualize, those go away. You have to add that storage capacity to a central server. Even if your organization already keeps user files on your central server, you have to add more storage. Each virtual desktop requires disk capacity to store user preferences, settings, and applications. That software is retained virtually on the main servers.

"Storage performance can be a potential issue, since many virtual desktops trying to access storage all at once can create a bottleneck that results in response-time degradation. This can happen at peak loading times, for example when everyone checks their email at the start of the day," said Hill.

Bottom line: virtual desktops require a whole lot of storage. If, for example, you get all users logging on at the same time in the morning, you can notice a big drop in performance since the server can't take that much traffic – much like rush hour gridlock. A variety of tools address such storage performance issues:

  • Nimble Storage sells storage arrays certified by VMware for the virtual desktop that combine solid state drives (SSD) for speed with high-capacity hard drives
  • NexGen n5 Storage System takes a similar approach to Nimble Storage
  • The Tintri VMstore appliance is all solid state storage
  • Greenbytes IO Offload Engine allows the server or storage hardware to offload traffic to prevent a bottleneck
  • Sanbolic also provides storage tools to improve desktop virtualization storage and performance.

Drew Robb is a Los Angeles-based freelancer specializing in technology and engineering. Originally from Scotland, he graduated with a degree in geology from Glasgow's Strathclyde University. In recent years he has authored hundreds of articles as well as the book, Server Disk Management by CRC Press.

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This article was originally published on Monday Apr 29th 2013
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