User virtualisation – the key to successful desktop virtualisation

A guide to optimising the deployment of desktop virtualisation

For companies deploying desktop virtualization, the main criteria for evaluating the success of the project is the end-user experience, according to a recent survey of 1,500 IT executives.

Desktop virtualization cheat sheet

But what exactly does the user experience consist of? Performance is key; a slower desktop is bad news for both end users and the organization. Mobility can be important ("What do you mean I can't take my desktop home?"). But a third component is the ability to maintain a familiar computing environment -- custom settings and usage policies.

Users should have the ability to maintain a fully personalized virtual desktop when not on the company network, and be able to take that 'personality' with them regardless of access device or OS environment.

User personalization is not new. Technologies to personalize the PC experience have been around for years. For example, Windows uses local profiles to load a user's preferences when the machine is booted up. In shared user environments, such as Terminal Server or Citrix XenApp, a modification to the local profile method, referred to as a roaming profile, is used.

But while personalization is essential, it is also vital for the business to be able to enforce corporate policy. An important consideration for businesses moving to the virtual desktop is the concept of ownership. A PC, by its very definition, is typically managed by the user (who is frequently the least qualified person to manage such an asset). However, when the environment is virtualized and centrally hosted, the perceived ownership transfers to the business (specifically the IT department).

This means that implementation and enforcement of company policy become more important - and more realistic - in virtualized environments. Policy is not the same for everyone and is subject to change as business agility dictates, which in terms of virtualization, leads to a need for tailored policy.

Policy represents what the company dictates (for example what network drives to map, what printers can be used, what applications can be accessed, etc.) and it must be tailored since policy varies depending on role (for example engineering vs. sales), device and location. Therefore, tailored policy becomes part of the user's virtual personality. It is the combination of corporate policy (what a user is allowed to do) and personalization (what they want to do) that defines the virtual user personality.

Both Citrix and VMware have recognized the need to incorporate a level of personalization into their desktop virtualization offering. They both have integrated profile management capabilities that provide the necessary personal experience for the user within that platform. However, the profile method is not optimized for use in virtualized, heterogeneous environments.In desktop estates where more than one desktop delivery mechanism is used (for example Server Based Computing along with a physical desktop), profile management is seriously challenged since the entire user profile needs to be copied around the network and applied each time the new desktop is constructed in the delivery mechanism of choice.

Profile management solutions developed by multiple vendors look to address the issues associated with roaming profiles, such as bloat and long logon times, but they fail to include cross platform personalization or policy management (such as they fail to deliver the full gamut of personal settings to each delivery mechanism) which is a major component to the user environment.

User Virtualization

In this new world of on-demand, componentized virtual desktops which are delivered using many different methods and technologies, a new way is needed to manage the user part of the desktop that includes both profile management and personalization.

In order to ensure all users have a seamless, personal and stable experience from a desktop estate that consists of combinations of physical PCs, virtual desktops, streamed applications, published desktops and applications, profile management and personalization are not enough.

The entire user environment needs to be virtualized. The process by which the user environment (effectively the 'DNA' of the user on the PC) is managed independently of the desktop and re-applied on-demand is called user virtualization.

By decoupling the user data from the desktop, the underlying OS and applications can be standardized and freshly provided every time access is required. This ensures they are always new, clean and up-to-date without impacting the user experience. Freshly provisioned desktops, sourced from a single image, will be cheaper to manage and support and will increase business agility since the organization no longer has thousands of unique machines to update/manage.

The Virtualized User Infrastructure

The components of what really constitutes a user desktop is quite significant. In the same way that delivery of an OS and applications to the user requires an infrastructure, so to must the user environment. Think of it as a 'Virtualized User Infrastructure.'

The user environment contains everything specific to a user, including user-based corporate policy, personalization settings, user rights management and user-introduced applications.

Infrastructure management tools must be provided to optimize the user environment. Enterprise-class reporting and auditing tools must provide visibility into the user environment in order to ensure users have the best working experience. Finally, the infrastructure must deliver user environments into virtual, physical and streamed desktops and applications – or combinations of those mechanisms – and also apply user environments across operating system versions (for example XP, Vista and Windows 7, Server 2008). For existing desktops, migration capabilities must exist to seamlessly move employees into dynamically delivered, standard desktops.

As desktop virtualization hits mainstream – a total of 66 million virtual desktops is expected by 2014 – it will exist within a framework that treats the user as a separate but equally important component to the OS and applications. Think of it as the 3-layer model: OS, applications and user data. User virtualization is an increasingly vital component of any significant desktop virtualization roll-out.

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