Making sense of client virtualisation

Over 90 per cent of businesses are implementing server virtualisation

Not long ago server virtualization was IT's New World, inhabited by a relatively few courageous souls who dared to break the framework of one server per application and one application to server. The others stood faithfully by rooms filled to capacity with servers, cabling, cooling equipment and hotspots.

Today, studies show that most businesses have moved to server virtualization at some level. CDW's Server Virtualization Life Cycle Report, released earlier this year, found that over 90% of respondents are implementing server virtualization, with the typical business reporting that 34% of their server infrastructure is virtual.

Now that IT appears to have visited that particular New World, more and more stouthearted explorers are itching to move on again -- and client virtualization appears to be a logical destination. Quite a few are already there, telling the rest of us that virtualizing the client environment can and does boost user productivity, provide for a secure network and work environment, and reduce management and support costs.

If you're thinking of heading out on that trail, here are some tips from the pioneers.

Just as server virtualization reduced the number of servers in the data center to improve performance, client virtualization reduces users' need to have their own dedicated software or hardware. Client virtualization deployments are often classified into three approaches:* Presentation virtualization: Nearly 15 years old, presentation viartualization began as a security measure with virtual private networks. Today, organizations are rethinking the use as a means to virtualize client environments and bring all the user applications into the data center. Presentation virtualization provides a Web-based portal for users to log in and interact with approved applications. The benefits include security, because it separates the user's device and potential threats from the network, greater manageability of the organizations applications and a consistent version of each throughout the organization and greater productivity for users, who can work remotely as their schedules permit or from whatever access device they choose.* Application virtualization: While it is sometimes confused with presentation virtualization, application virtualization marries an application and data within a self-executing file that can reside on a user's device. The computer sees a solitary file, rather than an entire application, which removes the application's dependency on the operating system (OS) so if an application is not compatible with the OS, it still works. This form of virtualization also benefits users who want to move from PC to Mac, or even Windows XP to Windows 7, as otherwise incompatible applications become platform neutral when virtualized.

* Desktop virtualization: Though this takes more planning than presentation or application virtualization, because it brings the desktop OS and applications into the data center, there are many benefits to consider. First, all the processing power comes from the data center; as long as a user can access the Internet, he has access to the business's applications. Second, IT can customize software images for departments rather than individuals, boosting a group's productivity and reducing management costs. Third, desktop virtualization also makes that weekly (or even daily) security patch obsolete, or at least less burdensome. The final and perhaps biggest benefit to desktop virtualization is a reduction in operating and maintenance costs. With the processing power hosted in the data center, organizations can provide users with more cost-effective devices, such as thin clients and/or extend desktop/laptop refresh cycles.

Before jumping into full-scale implementation, here is a decision checklist to consider when determining the best approach for your business:

* Infrastructure: Evaluate the demand of client virtualization on your data center and networking resources, as well as potential savings in your desktop environment. Consider your network's bandwidth and storage and server capacity to ensure the infrastructure can support user load increases arising from a virtualized desktop environment. By examining the entire IT infrastructure, you can better understand how client virtualization will impact the organization and determine whether it's possible to achieve the return on investment required to justify the investment.

* Cost: In addition to understanding IT infrastructure upgrades that may be required, consider the three major cost components of client virtualization: data center enhancements, network enhancements and software licensing. Software licensing may cause the biggest challenge as organizations must decide whether the associated costs should flow to the data center budget or the client budget. This is especially important for organizations that have separate teams for desktop support and data center support because a virtual desktop management solution resides in the data center but ultimately supports clients. Who's leading the charge -- or more importantly, who takes the charge on their budget line?

* Staff training: Whether your organization chooses one type of client virtualization or all three, be prepared to re-train and re-orient the support staff and users on what the new architecture means to them day-to-day. Client virtualization changes what the support work is and, in many organizations, it also changes who is responsible for that support work. It may mean that users will call someone new for some or all of their support needs. Getting everyone through that transition requires planning, execution time and budget.

* Implementation: For IT professionals familiar with server virtualization, the implementation approach to client virtualization is similar:

* Determine where the biggest need for client virtualization is or where you can get the best ROI.

* Decide how you will roll out client virtualization -- by department (e.g., sales team, accounting, customer service) or user type (e.g., remote employees, internal users, executives).

* Determine the most appropriate software platform for you

* Choose your hardware platform -- thin client, desktop or laptop? Company owned or employee owned -- or both?

* Review your disaster-recovery plans. Now that you're going to concentrate all of that computing power and data in your data center, how will you protect its integrity and availability?

* Plan the deployment carefully and ensure everyone with a stake in its success is aboard and informed.

* Execute, execute, execute. Now that all stakeholders have bought in, you need to deliver a positive user experience, and it's about more than client virtualization (although that's key); it's about how well they'll receive your next major project proposal.

Client virtualization meets an organization's IT needs in at least five ways. It's efficient, making it possible to deploy applications with fewer staff resources; it's fiscally sound with an ROI that usually justifies the expenditure; it supports user productivity by ensuring remote and internal users alike easy access to their applications; it provides a secure network and work environment by keeping security threats from devices safely off the network, improving up time; and it keeps you ready for the Next Big Thing, because you're better positioned to handle PC/Mac changes, Windows 7 and beyond.Like server virtualization, client virtualization is not a mythical destination. It's real. It offers tangible benefits that support the business on multiple levels.

Read more about data center in Network World's Data Center section.

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