Is VDI dead?

Cloud paging could soon replace Virtual Desktop Infrastructure as it is more cost-effective and provides improved control over software licensing.

As we continually look for new ways to deliver applications to an increasingly mobile user population, the question is becoming: if solutions can be packaged once for any device, do we still need Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI)? 

For years, companies have been searching for the holy grail of providing seamless access to all their business critical systems via a browser. In most organisations provisioning and supporting desktops costs between 50 and 75% of the total infrastructure IT budget, and VDI (sometimes called hosted virtual desktops or shared desktops) can make implementation and management of this desktop estate considerably easier. 

Benefits can include reduced power consumption, increased mobility and reduced support requirements, such as the VDI solution Fordway implemented at Brent Council, which provided power consumption savings of more than 80% as well as supporting flexible working for council staff. 

One of the key tenets of a VDI solution is the availability of all applications, anywhere, by streaming either each application or a dedicated desktop, including the operating system, from a data centre – hence its popularity as a means of supporting flexible working. However, it comes at a significant cost, primarily in terms of the back-end grunt required to provide this capability, but also financially. 

Despite often being touted as a way to reduce costs, no VDI solution has ever saved an organisation money. The theory of removing all processing power from local devices and having ‘smart’ dumb terminals either doesn’t work or the cost of the device needed is almost the same as that of a traditional desktop or laptop. Additionally, with increasing use of video and other graphical media, the local device needs to have the capabilities to cope, as running this remotely introduces delays and poor experience for the user. Granted, there are certain benefits of using VDI, such as resilience and availability. However, if a desktop or laptop fails this only impacts one person. If a VDI solution fails, everyone loses access to their applications and business grinds to a halt. And, despite what solution developers may tell you, even with resilience designed into the system it can and does happen! 

One problem with VDI is where different devices have different operating systems. This means that you have to develop and package multiple versions of the OS, which adds to the time and cost of deployment. 

Another issue is the ‘legacy’ applications that most organisations depend on. These may have been originally developed ten or more years ago and could be bespoke applications developed in-house or specialist packaged applications which have been customised to organisational needs. Application delivery systems have always struggled to handle these complex (and often older) applications. The time taken to develop and package multiple versions side by side on the same system can be staggering. For example, App-V is supposedly ‘free’, yet it requires multiple packages for different environments, which adds both complexity and cost. You simply can’t deliver all the line of business applications an organisation needs through a browser with any degree of flexibility. 

But the real irony is that the main blocker to VDI is personal preference and individualisation.  We are all different and will always want different things, whereas delivering the same thing to everyone is what VDI excels at. 

In the real world VDI never could provide 100% of all the requirements for all the users.  It has always excelled at meeting the needs of the ‘standard’ user and administrator who have more basic requirements, and has struggled with power users and laptop users who need their ‘own’ stuff, locally.  Therefore, at best it could effectively deliver to up to 75% of an organisation’s users, but the organisation then needed another delivery mechanism for the rest of its workforce. 

The ideal solution would enable all applications to be delivered quickly in one package to any device; handle the plethora of DLLs, browser plug-ins and versions without breaking sweat; and cope with different user login requirements, all in a single package. This, according to Numecent, is what their cloud paging solution provides by provisioning native applications from the cloud through virtualisation and containerisation. At present this solution seems to be largely used by universities and hasn’t yet become mainstream. It’s something that we’ve been testing as a way of packaging complex applications and have recently sold to one of our customers for this purpose. 

Another benefit to cloud paging is that it has licence tracking capabilities and it is as easy to remove a piece of software as to provide it. Every organisation that Fordway has ever dealt with has had licencing issues.  Examples are Microsoft Visio and Project, where users have the application installed on their systems as it is stated as a requirement for their job. Whether they actually use it is totally unknown or very difficult to perceive without buying specific licence tracking solutions, and most of these work on whether certain executables exist on the machine. In other words, if you have a copy, you need a licence.  

In contrast, cloud paging actively tracks what applications are being used and provides comprehensive usage reports.  Even better, it can be configured to remove an application automatically from the device if it is not used for a specified period of time. All of a sudden an organisation has full control of its software licencing and reduced costs.   

Updates to applications are also handled in a very straightforward way. Once an application has been updated, the next time the user launches that application the new version is downloaded and available, which is much quicker than traditional delivery methodologies. The delivery of the applications is totally secure, as all applications are encrypted and compressed prior to leaving the cloud paging server. This means that, no matter where the client device is located, the applications can be loaded or installed without worrying about how secure the environment is.  

The system is designed primarily for the most complex applications, but it can be used to package any application of your choice. 

So, if you really can now deliver any application within a very short timescale to any device, anywhere, why do you need VDI? You can buy users the desktop or laptops they prefer and let them have the applications they want. You can set them up to conform to security requirements without worrying if an application will work, using the advanced licence tracking feature available within cloud paging to ensure that individuals are using particular applications and remove the application if they are not (so the product pays for itself). 

Of course the move back from centralised to distributed computing means some of the other issues that VDI was designed to address will return. For example, users will tend to store data locally, which means it will not be backed up. However, endpoint backup and compliance solutions such as Druva inSync and others are available to fill those gaps, and organisations should also have appropriate security policies in place. In my opinion, as a way of handling complex line of business applications it’s the obvious solution. 

Drew Markham, service strategist, Fordway 

Image Credit: Bluebay / Shutterstock