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Understanding virtual desktops – the future of enterprise IT environments

(Image credit: Image source: Shutterstock/bluebay)

Virtual desktops are becoming an increasingly powerful tool for organisations.

Some may even say they’re now mission-critical, helping organisations deliver consumer-grade user experience to staff who have now come to expect it.

It seems more and more organisations are looking to create a superior working environment that employees can access from any device in any location while strengthening their security defences from a growing threat of attack.

But what kind of organisation can virtual desktops benefit and how can you get the most out of your investment?

What is a virtual desktop and how does it work?

Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), put simply, abstracts operating systems, applications and the data from the devices in people's hands, host them within data centres - whether it be an employee’s own, a co-location or one of the hyperscale clouds - and present it back to them via a browser or an agent.

It means employees can access their personalised desktop with their icons, wallpaper, windows, folders, toolbars and apps from anywhere remotely and on any device. It’s no longer tied to a physical device.

Many large players are developing their VDI offerings, from Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop, Citrix’s Citrix cloud, AWS workspaces, to VMWare Horizon Cloud for example. More and more organisations of all sizes are taking advantages of the business benefits which include simplified management, increased productivity and strengthened security.

VDI isn’t new and many of the large providers have been offering it to their corporate customers for years. The problem was, switching from physical desktops to virtual ones was, on the whole, difficult and expensive.

But we’ve reached a turning point and there’s no going back. The market is set for explosion over the next five years, with the latest estimates expecting the global virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) market to be worth USD 25,496.3 million by 2025.

So, how could going virtual help your business?

An innovative digital workspace solution

The way we work is changing and VDI can support organisations to get the most out of the digital workspace.

IT teams in large organisations, or directors at small businesses, often find themselves working hard behind the scenes to keep employee’s PCs up to date and working efficiently. This can be tricky when machines are different ages and run off a mix of operating systems.

Instead, VDI can free up resources by allowing an organisation to manage and maintain machines centrally and remotely, saving money and reducing energy consumption at the same time.

In today’s competitive jobs market, attracting and retaining the best talent is getting harder, particularly in industries where skills gaps are widening. We’re also seeing a jump in the number of employees working from home – 70 per cent of people globally work from home at least once a week.

A consumer-grade experience for the workforce can help staff realise their productivity potential in any location, whether they’re working on-site, at home or on the move and can give organisations the increased flexibility and mobility they need to manage both their workforce and IT estate remotely.

A virtual desktop can allow employees to access their personalised desktops on a computer, laptop or tablet and create multiple desktops where applications and windows are used in different scenarios. This helps people separate projects and flick quickly between tasks or create boundaries between work and play, especially important when remote working or BYOD is encouraged.

There are also security benefits when it comes to deploying VDI. 2019 was yet another busy year for hackers and it seems no industry or organisation is immune from the threat.

For organisations looking to take every precaution necessary to protect their own, their customers’ and their suppliers’ data, VDI can strengthen cyber-defences without complicating deployments or restricting productivity. It’s also democratising how organisations can defend themselves and levelling the playing field between the start-up and the FTSE 100 company when it comes to protections.

How to “go virtual”

If you’re won over by the business benefits of going virtual, it’s vital you pick the right product VDI for you. The market is growing and maturing every year, with many different service providers now fighting for your custom, each with varying price points and capabilities.

So how you do pick the best VDI for your organisation?

For example, with Amazon WorkSpaces you can choose between five bundles depending on your needs or you can pay monthly or hourly just for the WorkSpaces you launch. IBM Cloud only encrypts visual output and mouse or keyboard input over the network, making the need for local copies of files redundant and boosting cybersecurity defences. Microsoft Windows Virtual Desktop is pay as you go, offering unlimited capacity and will allow you to run Windows 7 desktops in the cloud for up to three years without having to pay for the extended security updates.

Once you’ve done your research and picked your VDI provider, it isn’t job done. VDI isn’t perfect and it has created new challenges which organisations need to overcome to ensure smooth running.

Some less tech-savvy employees may take more time to understand and accept why their desktop has been virtualised, so introducing all staff who will be using the VDI is key. This can help iron out any problems before they arise from misunderstandings or resistance to change and mean your employees are getting the most out of the product.

Licence breaches are also a concern for some with VDI; it’s important to be clear on the guidelines set by your provider about software deployment on virtual machines. Major vendors are unlikely to come down hard on businesses if it’s their first offence, but they do have the right to audit their customers and verify licensing. Most leading providers have also now updated their licencing terms for virtualisation to make things clearer.

Organisations who decide to move extremely old databases or software over to a virtual desktop may encounter problems and some may have to update it before the switch. Running a test prior to virtualisation is a good idea to help identify any troublesome applications and allow you to come up with plan B before you’re too far down the rabbit hole.

Adam Harding, Chief Technologist for Digital Workspace, Softcat