Virtual desktop infrastructures have been slow to catch on. In our December 2009 survey, respondents reported that just 3% of end users were primarily using VDI or terminal services, though 36% reported the technology in use and another 23% reported plans to implement it in the next 18 months. While these numbers seem low, and the nature of VDI and other thin client technologies makes it extremely unlikely that they will emerge as the main means of delivering applications, that doesn't mean VDI doesn't have a place in your app delivery arsenal.
That same survey found the primary barriers to adoption to be users' need to work disconnected from the network, cited by 50%, and the investment required to make the technology work, cited by 47%. The first is a legitimate concern, but if your users can manage to be well-enough connected to use software-as-a-service apps, they can use your internally hosted applications as well. That leaves the second concern: What's the business case for VDI?
The first and most obvious is for apps that just won't run on whatever device your end users want to use. One senior IT manager I spoke with recently talked about how his company was stuck with an expense report management app that could be used only with Internet Explorer 6. Now, no one in his right mind would leave IE 6 installed on end-user devices. So rather than run the gauntlet of proposing a new application, vetting it, configuring it, and retraining users, his IT team installed IE 6 in a VDI environment and let users access the expense app that way.
This probably amounts to just kicking the can down the street; sooner or later you'll have to deal with that app. But there are upsides. Where non-Windows users such as those with Macs and iPads couldn't get at the app previously, they now can using some Citrix magic. Citrix showed its iPad client at the Interop show in Las Vegas in April, and it was surprisingly responsive. It's also one way to get Flash-based apps to run on an iPad--so take that, Mr. Jobs.
Particularly as organizations move to Windows 7, these sorts of application problems are bound to come up, so it's good to have this solution available. Just don't forget to eventually deal with those problems, which means finding well-supported Web-based alternatives.
The second use I had in mind is for systems whose access must be controlled in an auditable fashion, or whose data is so sensitive it really can't leave the data center. There are a lot of apps out there that don't authenticate users and that don't provide a rich audit trail. Using VDI is one way to get that data, so that you know who accessed an application and when he or she used it. Data protection and regulatory compliance issues like these have been the main reason to use terminal-services-style solutions, and they're a good reason to use VDI, too.
The point here is to view VDI as the tactical technology it is. And as you evaluate alternative products, keep in mind the varied device requirements of your end users. While delivering Windows apps to Macs and iPads makes more sense to me than delivering them to BlackBerrys and iPhones, you just never know what's going to make sense a few months from now. Having VDI available also can open up a world of options as you plan your upgrade to Win 7. Users who used to need both a Mac and Windows system can likely make do with just the Mac. The same goes for Linux. Executive types who are enamored of the iPad and who want to make it their only device may be able to do so.
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