Hosting virtual desktops: Tips for a successful outcome

How do you calculate and quantify those advantages, choose the right technology and build out a successful hosted virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI)?

Desktop virtualization may be a good way to eliminate the need for laptop computers that travel between home and office, if users already have a PC or thin client in each location, says INX's Kaplan. "Virtualization follows them around," he says.

The retail chain Rent-A-Center, for example, recently launched a desktop virtualization pilot. KC Condit, senior director of information security and support, hopes to avoid having to give laptops to the 425 store managers who travel to as many as eight stores each week. Instead, he hopes to equip those managers with a hosted virtual desktop that's accessible from a home computer or from a thin client in any store. .]

St. Luke's Health System empowers doctors with iPads

St. Luke's Health System is turning doctor-owned iPads into virtual Windows desktops. The healthcare provider is using Citrix XenDesktop software provide secure access to clinical applications from the tablets. The proof-of-concept project could end up supporting hundreds of iPad-toting physicians, as well as Android devices and Windows laptops, says Michael Kamer, manager of technology integration services. "We're going to more of a bring-your-own-computer scenario," he says.

Kamer is also testing XenDesktop with thin clients at nursing stations. The hospital keeps the virtual desktops running after the nurses log out to avoid long log-in and application load times. The reason: Nurses must log in and out often, for patient privacy reasons. "They may log in to an application 30 or 40 times per day. If we keep them running [after they log out], they can continue to use the same session," he says.

St. Luke's started with XenApp, which runs applications on top of a Microsoft Remote Desktop Services terminal session and delivers the applications via a Web interface. But getting through a smart-badge log-in process and then loading the application required 40 to 50 seconds. With XenDesktop, he says, "we're now down to 5 seconds."

One big caveat: Remote access using XenDesktop requires a special security setup. Because the hospital doesn't consider user-owned devices to be secure, each must connect to a guest network and use a two-factor authentication process that requires users to present guest tokens. "We're not going to get a lot of user satisfaction with that," says Kamer, so the project is unlikely to go live until Citrix and Apple work out a way for the hospital to use certificates instead.

-- Robert L. Mitchell

Rent-A-Center's virtualization pilot, based on XenDesktop, could become a secure access method for hundreds of contractors, temps and business partners -- and it may set the stage for the company's ultimate goal: getting out of the business of issuing and supporting client hardware. "This paves the way for a bring-your-own-computer model, which is what I want for contractors this year and employees next," says Jai Chanani, who as senior director of technology services and architecture at Rent-A-Center also worked on the networking and data center infrastructure designs for the project.

Chanani isn't the only one with that vision. "We're enabling the business to let people use their own devices," as long as Citrix has a Receiver client for it, says Cawson at The Co-operative Group. "We will allow BYOC this year for iPads," he says, just as soon as Citrix releases Version 13 of its Receiver client. Support for other devices will follow.

Going green

Some organizations are looking for green benefits. For example, Align has a large financial services customer that uses high-performance PCs for real-time trading. The client is considering replacing a second, general-purpose PC on each desk with a virtual desktop and thin client to save both space and power. "It's not just the power on the trading floor, but also the heat associated with those PCs," Mayers says.

The Co-operative Group chose thin clients instead of full-fledged PCs for 90% of the desktops in its new head offices, which come online in 2012. It expects to reduce annual desktop maintenance costs by about $2.4 million and energy costs by about $800,000.

Some retail customers are replacing aging Windows XP-based point-of-sale registers with virtual desktops and thin clients. "We hook up a credit card machine and scanner and have them controlled by corporate without putting any PCs in store locations," Align's Mayers says.

Just make sure the equipment you have is supported by the virtualization vendor. Steven Porter, CIO at Touchstone Behavioral Health, uncovered just this issue during a recent pilot with VMware View. [See sidebar.] Staff in the field had USB-powered signature pads attached to their laptops -- and the VMware client mistook this device for a mouse. Although the manufacturer of the signature pad has a workaround, Porter says it's clunky.

"I don't think I could get my end users to use it," he says. "That was a deal-breaker."

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Robert L. Mitchell

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