As an Engineer for an MSP, we get to build, support and maintain the IT infrastructure of many different companies with many different styles of IT infrastructure. No two infrastructures are the same, as different companies have different needs, but all companies need to meet their IT requirements with as little day-to-day support as possible. A virtual environment can provide a solution to meet these requirements.
One of our clients has about 150 users spanning multiple international locations. Users travel between countries and work from home regularly. Although it does take a well-thought-out and meticulously maintained backend to support the company’s needs, users rarely have any reason to complain! The company has a very simple, yet healthy and powerful VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) for its users, which so seldom causes issues for the users that the company no longer has a help desk ticketing system. Users simply write an email, call, or swing by the IT department if they ever have any issues, which happens only about once every two weeks. They can finally devote their IT staff to projects and improving the infrastructure, and no longer waste so much time with break/fix scenarios.
Now, virtualization is nothing new. I can recall a former client trying to move to a virtual desktop environment in 2010 and failing miserably. The infrastructure was underpowered and users were unfamiliar with the concept of virtualization. Even worse, the concept at the time was to virtualize the user’s existing physical machines, which continues to be a good concept, but a difficult practice. Since then, many advances have been made and many large companies (1000+ users) have made virtualization a way of life. But why should only large companies reap the rewards? Most mid-sized and even small businesses have some aspect of their Data Center virtualized, meaning they already have some of the required technology and software available.
We can talk about the plethora of more advanced desktop and mobility options that VMware now offers (Horizon, Mirage, etc.), which are all excellent choices, but let’s talk about something even simpler. The aforementioned client keeps their VDI simple: A single base template replicated and dedicated to each user (with some spares) spread out across 16 ESX hosts (2 locations, 8 in each location, 4 for production and 4 for backup). The template is straightforward: Virtual Machines (VMs) are dedicated to the user. If the user requests additional software, the VM will get a snapshot and software will be installed on the user’s VM. Therefore, there are always snapshots and backups to revert to if something goes wrong with the VM. If a VM is underpowered, resources can be added via VMware’s hotswapping features and VMs can be migrated from host-to-host without interruption. A physical desktop infrastructure has does not have these perks. A virtual desktop has the perks of snapshotting, backups, hotswapping and vMotion that can save your IT team’s reputation and sanity!
Users can be supplied with Thinclients to connect to their VMs, which are more cost effective and easier to maintain than a desktop. Thinclients are wonderful, as they can be used, abused, replaced and RMA’d with ease if there is ever an issue. They tend to have a long service life, since they require very little power to connect users to their VMs. If you already have PCs and you want to be able to user the PC’s existing horsepower to help run VMs, VMware now offers products like Mirage, that will do just that. In the interest of keeping things simple, I am not going to go into Horizon, Mirage and Thinapp, which are all very cool and allow for tremendous flexibility, but are a bit more involved.
So now let’s put everything together: I have seen mid-sized businesses have virtual desktops that work! Not only do they work, they work better than an environment depending on physical desktops. Here is the next part: I am not going to sell you snake oil. Although you will find that time you devote to break-and-fix and Help Desk Support will plummet dramatically, you will now need to devote your attention to the backend. You will need to commit to making sure your ESX hosts have all the horsepower they can handle. You will have to make sure your network bandwidth balances correctly. You will need to test your backup and DR solutions regularly. You will need to monitor the time of day when bandwidth and data is at its highest. You will need to spend a lot of time creating and implementing a group policy. The list goes on, as Virtual Datacenters and Desktop Infrastructures require such attention. With a VMware Virtual Desktop Infrastructure, you will put in 50 hours of work to get it right so you do not have to put in 10 hours of work per week just to keep things running. By working hard to design and implement your environment correctly, you will not be endlessly fixing and maintaining your environment. Now you can devote your IT resources to bettering your IT environment and staying on the forefront of technology, as opposed to chasing a ball downhill, constantly trying to keep up with it. Getting rid of the day-to-day tasks will let you grab the ball and be a leader.