Talk to vendors and they will tell you that desktop virtualization is heading for an inflection point. Clearly, in the IT/ITES segment, this technology makes a lot of sense. Other industry verticals, BFSI in particular, also stand to benefit. However, it must be noted that desktop virtualization isn’t everybody’s cup of tea. It needs a large number of users who are deskbound at work. While you can deploy the technology on a laptop and solutions exist that allow you to access a virtual desktop using a tablet or a smartphone, the deployments that have occurred have been for deskbound users such as IT developers or information workers.
Nevertheless, the technology has matured and there are clear benefits for specific scenarios. Also, beyond the efforts of the desktop virtualization players themselves, the ecosystem of storage and server makers are acting as evangelists for these solutions.
Globally, the action has been in the BFSI segment. “The adoption of VDI as a stack has created a lot of interest. However, its adoption by enterprises is slower than what was expected,” said Apoorva Singh, Head IMS, iGATE Patni.
In India, however, it is the IT/ITES vertical that has been the biggest adopter of this technology. Some examples of deployments by this industry vertical include eClerx that has a hundred plus users on a VMware-Dell Blades solution.
Sierra Atlantic that has 100+ users on Citrix Xen-Dell PowerEdge Racks; and Geometric that has gone in for a VMware solution running on Cisco UCS servers and NetApp storage. Microsoft’s application virtualization technology, APP-V, has been adopted in the software services segment by the likes of Infosys and Cognizant. KPIT Cummins has deployed 1,200 seats of VDI from EMC at its Pune facility and, having seen an improvement in response time as compared to the erstwhile physical desktops, is now looking to extend the deployment to its Bangalore facility.
“IT/ITES companies are facing pressure from competitors in countries like the Philippines & Malaysia. Earlier, their set-ups were limited to the metros but, nowadays, you find call centers even in Ahmedabad and Coimbatore. Desktop virtualization enables IT managers in these outfits to manage the infrastructure from a central location,” said Rajat Mehta, Country Head, Emerging Business unit, HP PSG India.
BFSI is the second biggest consumer of desktop virtualization. Here, the likes of PNB and SBI have been the leaders in adopting this technology. Cooperative banks are starting to follow suit for security reasons.
Deployment in other verticals including education, government, telecom and manufacturing has been sporadic. There’s clearly some level of interest but it hasn’t translated into implementations yet except in a handful of cases.
Venkatesh K Iyer, Head – India & SAARC (VCE Initiative), EMC, felt that the reason as to why the IT vertical was such a good fit for this technology was simply because IT companies tended to have development centers staffed with hundreds or thousands of developers who were mostly desk bound and therefore desktop virtualization worked out well for them. “Traditionally, it makes sense for any corporate that is setting up a complex with 500 or more seats. It helps in planning from a project standpoint,” he added.
Rajesh Rege, Sr. VP, Data Center Sales, Cisco India & SAARC, felt that BFSI and service providers were the likely prospects for this technology beyond IT/ITES where adoption was strong. He also felt that, in the medium term, areas like retail where multi-format stores were coming in, each having different merchandising points, would consider this technology. In the case of BFSI, the sector’s affinity for data security and manageability helped make a strong case for this technology. “We are at an inflection point for VDI/VXI and significant adoption will occur during the next 12-18 months,” he said.
VMware cited the example of Mahesh Bank, a cooperative bank that’s deploying VDI. Other than IT/ITES, the vendor has found traction in BFSI and telecom as well. “BFSI is a big play as they have a lot of endpoints to secure, lots of distributed infrastructure, branch-based banking etc.,” commented Seema Ambastha, Director – Technology, VMware India.
Another vertical that’s currently dipping its metaphorical toe in the waters of desktop virtualization is none other than the education segment. Citrix has signed up with Manipal University and the latter has begun using its technology at one of its corporate campuses. Even manufacturing hasn’t been wholly immune to the technology’s charms. Perfetti Van Melle India has deployed desktop virtualization from Citrix.
Then there’s the SMB segment where thin client adoption (as the front-end for desktop virtualization, thin client adoption automatically means that there are VMs running in a data center somewhere) is starting to pick up. “We have seen this in the West Zone where a lot of SMBs are going in for thin clients. Some of them go in for a solid-state device with a Linux kernel or a combination of the Linux OS with OpenOffice. Now that online productivity solutions like Google Apps and Office 365 are available, their adoption will fuel this trend. 90% of people use office productivity tools. 3G’s already available and once Reliance launches its 4G offering, SMBs will go for this in a big way,” said HP’s Mehta.
CAPEX doesn’t go away
It’s interesting to note that what should have been a downer has proved to be the virtual desktop’s saving grace. CAPEX that would otherwise have gone towards buying PCs is now being spent on acquiring servers and storage and this has made true believers of vendors who otherwise wouldn’t have batted an eyelid to help this category along. The upshot of the compute and storage shifting to the back-end is that server and storage vendors have become major boosters of this technology.
In terms of server iron, a high-end Intel box, either 2- or 4-way with lots of RAM (128/256 GB), with a second one for high availability, can manage about 200 users. 50 TB of storage would be required for a thousand users although that can come down if flash memory is used in the storage array. Other storage technologies that can bring down utilization include thin provisioning and dedupe. For remote access, some sort of WAN accelerator solution is recommended.
Storage tiering can prove handy in a virtual desktop scenario with applications being placed on one tier and user data on another. Automated storage tiering technology can help by putting frequently accessed data on flash storage to dramatically boost performance.
It’s worth noting is that before deploying desktop virtualization, a company has to virtualize its servers and storage. It’s clear that deploying this technology entails substantial investments at the back-end. However, the good news is that most organizations are considering server and storage virtualization in order to boost efficiencies in any case. They can tag the desktop virtualization implementation onto the server and storage virtualization project by over provisioning on both fronts to the extent that is required to support the number of virtual desktops that they intend to use.
It’s all about control
EMC’s Iyer argued that deploying virtual desktops was all about bringing down the OPEX. “It’s easier from a patch management and upgrade perspective; it’s easy to commission or decommission virtual desktops; it’s power efficient and it can easily be backed up. From a security standpoint, it can help prevent data loss that would usually occur if a laptop were lost. With the proliferation of iPads and BlackBerry phones, being able to give these users access to their virtual desktops on these devices boosts productivity. The number of IT administrators needed to manage the desktop resources is half of what you need in a conventional environment,” he said.
Dell’s experience has been that deployment time goes down significantly once a company moves to a virtual desktop scenario.
With hundreds of people joining IT/ITES/BFSI organizations on the same day, with cloning technology, virtual desktops could be made ready for these users within 5-10 minutes. “The time need for provisioning desktops has gone from weeks to a few hours or less,” said Syed Masroor, Manager – Pre Sales, NetApp India.
As desktop virtualization places everything in one place, it simplifies DR/BC etc. Moreover, while the loss of a laptop can prove dangerous in terms of data loss and harmful to a company’s reputation, it becomes less of an issue when you go in for this technology. The upgrade/refresh cycles are fewer as thin clients last longer. It’s also easier to give additional resources in terms of memory or storage to a user than in a conventional scenario, pointed out Suhas Kelkar, CTO, APAC & Global Director of Innovation & Incubation, BMC Software.
According to Anoop Nambiar, Country Manager – Business Partner Organization, IBM India/SA, the benefits of desktop virtualization included extending the life of desktop PCs, lowering the business risks associated with data security, compliance and disaster recovery and expediting the roll out of any application or OS upgrade (E.g. SAP or Windows 7).
“If it takes 20-30 minutes to deploy Microsoft Office on to a physical desktop whereas it’s a drag & drop operation in a virtual desktop scenario,” said K Chockalingam, Enterprise Solutions Architect, Quest Software.
“Once you centralize management, you can bring in all the best practices and apply them at one go to the desktop environment. This is something that couldn’t be done previously as these desktops had to be managed individually,” said Andy Karandikar, Services – Head, Red Hat India.
“Management and support costs are lower in a desktop virtualization scenario particularly when you have users in locations scattered across the globe. Customers may not require thick clients for all of the users and thin clients, that consume a fraction of the power (10% or so), can be used. The longer refresh cycle of 6-7 years for a thin client vs. 3-4 years for conventional desktop PCs and lower base cost of thin clients are other advantages of this technology,” said Krishnan of Wipro.
HP’s Mehta explained that although, on a per seat basis, the CAPEX was comparable to that of buying a PC, OPEX savings would allow you to recover costs after 18 months. Centralizing the compute resources in the data center allowed you to manage and allocate resources with ease. Beyond the substantially lower power consumption, being solid-state meant that thin clients did not require an AC environment. The chances of virus attacks and data leakage were also minimized. The technology also promoted work from home or any location other than the office as users could connect using a Web client/VPN.
Singh of iGATE Patni emphatically stated that organizations seeking a rapid RoI were better off looking elsewhere as it would take a span of five years for the benefits to be realized in a desktop virtualization deployment. These benefits would include savings in terms of the money that would otherwise have been spent on managing desktops as well as in terms of break/fix and remote support. “In a VDI environment, in terms of compliance, it is easy to control policy adherence or access rights. It changes the way that you manage the desktop and the capability of each machine is limited to what the server admin mandates,” he added.
It’s worth noting that the RoI of a desktop virtualization roll out only comes into play when you are talking about several hundred users. On a 1:1 comparison, it doesn’t work out. Talk about 200-300 or more users and it’s a different ball game altogether.
How Indian organizations go about virtualizing their desktops
In terms of sizing, the experience of the vendors polled varied with pilots running to anything from 25 to 100 seats and final deployments working out at thousands of seats but over a span of several years as the concerned user companies went through their respective desktop refresh cycles.
CIOs manage things so that the desktop virtualization effort coincides with their hardware refresh cycle. They start looking into what’s possible about 6-8 months before the refresh cycle commences,” commented HP’s Mehta.
“Typically, there would be a new facility or development center that’s coming up and the company decides to take advantage of that fact and pilot the concept of desktop virtualization to see how it works from the standpoints of network utilization, ease of deployment and user acceptance,” said Cisco’s Rege.
Indian organizations typically start with a POC of 25 seats followed by a wider pilot of 75-100 seats and then, once they have ironed out all the wrinkles, they scale up to several hundred users or even thousands of users
“For a thousand users plus, we have seen the process take 45-60 days. Often, customers take a small sample of 30 or 60 or 100 users and do a simulation after which then they come up with a design that lets them extend the deployment. It is important to study the network topology, OSs in use and to look at the data center, access rights etc.,” said Dell’s Venkat.
Not just VDI
While VDI has dominated the desktop virtualization arena to a large extent, it’s far from the only option. Vendors such as Citrix and Microsoft have other technologies that also play in the virtual desktop world. These include terminal services from Citrix as well as application virtualization and OS virtualization from Microsoft. Terminal services is lighter than VDI in terms of allowing you to support more users per CPU but it is a shared desktop scenario which means that one user’s changes or problems could affect another. VDI, on the other hand, offers a dedicated virtual desktop for each user with the upside of being more stable but it also consumes more CPU resources on the server.
Application virtualization or APP-V is a client-based virtualization technology that lets you run multiple versions of the same application in a test and development environment or to support hot desking where the same PC will be used by many users (e.g. in the BPO industry). There’s also OS virtualization or MED-V that lets you run several OSs on a single PC. It could be to support a legacy application that hasn’t been ported or for test and development work.
For task workers who work on one or two applications and don’t require too much of personalization, application virtualization in a hosted or shared desktop scenario would be the most appropriate solution. For knowledge workers who access more applications and require some amount of personalization, VDI is best suited. For users who require high-end graphics such as designers—a blade PC in the data center would be ideal. Graphics designers or CAD CAM users would require a high-end desktop. “For laptop users, you have client virtualization. Citrix has the Xen client that allows you to continue working when you are offline. When you connect to the server, the upgrades and patches are transferred and your changes are synchronized,” said Harish Krishnan, GM – TIS, Wipro Technologies.
Dell’s experience was that VDI was usually the foundation and that based on the customer’s requirements it would offer terminal server or blades as part of a virtual data center stack, commented Sitaram Venkat, National Manager, Enterprise Solutions Marketing, Dell India.
Sanjay Deshmukh, Area VP – India Subcontinent, Citrix Systems India Pvt. Ltd., said, “The hosted share model supports three-four times as many users as VDI does.” His argument was that while the top brass would expect a high quality of service and VDI was necessary for them, for others lower down the organizational food chain, particularly those running fewer applications that were less resource hungry, the hosted shared model worked out just fine. He recommended the Xen client, which creates a VM with your corporate image that you can work on in an offline environment for sales executives. “Whenever you connect to the network, it syncs what you’ve done. If it is lost, you can send a kill PIN and delete it,” he added.
According to him, “The typical ratio that we have seen in the enterprise is that 20-30% of the users are on VDI, 70-80% are on hosted share while Xen Client or streamed desktop would be used by less than 5-10% of the user base.”
BMC’s Kelkar’s take was that VDI had come to rule the roost in this area on account of it solving the problems associated with terminal services where multiple remote sessions shared the same machine and one session crashing could take down the server.
Not everyone agreed with that assertion. 80% of the users tended to be on terminal services while the rest required a proper desktop infrastructure, felt Apoorva Singh, Head IMS, iGATE Patni.
“For a bank teller who does all of his work at the office, terminal services is fine. For a user who needs to work from home but lacks connectivity, MED-V or APP-V makes sense. Whenever we talk about desktop virtualization it almost always gets associated with VDI, however,” said Sumeet Khanna, Director, Windows Business Group, Microsoft India.
Overall, it was clear that companies that had decided to take the plunge were going in for thin clients and replacing their existing desktop base as part of the existing refresh cycle.
Having said all this, it must be stated that desktop virtualization is no magic bullet. While it works well, superbly so, in many use cases, the usage of client-side VM technology hasn’t quite taken off yet and for users who travel extensively, it’s not the best solution.
BMC’s Kelkar made this rather interesting point that it was the IT department that was pushing desktop virtualization because the biggest payoff was for these folks. “IT administrators want people to use virtual desktops. End users aren’t asking for them,” he pointed out.
- Outside IT/ITES where it’s been a big success, the traction of this technology has been muted although BFSI institutions are also deploying it to some extent.
- Desktop virtualization doesn’t reduce the initial CAPEX. All it does is that it shifts the costs from the front-end into the data center where you need to buy additional servers and storage.
- The benefits here accrue from ease of management and greater control. Moreover, if a company goes from using PCs to thin clients during its hardware refresh, then it can save considerably as thin clients cost about half as much as PCs and they offer substantial power savings to boot as these devices lack moving components. They also last longer allowing companies to stretch their hardware refresh cycles. Another benefit is that organizations that have gone in for virtual desktops can rapidly provision desktops for new users.
- There are multiple desktop virtualization technologies out there of which VDI is simply the most prominent one. For users who don’t have particularly heavy requirements, even terminal services would do. For the ITES segment, application virtualization works well for hot desking.
- Not everybody in an organization can be migrated onto a virtual desktop. Folks who travel a lot wouldn’t really benefit much from this although there is the option of an encrypted virtual desktop client that syncs when you reconnect. Users of 3D graphics or CAD/CAM and other graphically intensive software would need blade PCs, which would be easier to manage but wouldn’t provide any CAPEX savings.
- Desktop virtualization is loved by IT administrators as it makes their life a lot easier but users need to be handled with care as the thought of losing their PCs can be devastating for some users (the P in PC, after all, stands for Personal Computer). Change management must be handled with care.
Choosing the right device
While thin clients have lots of advantages, they aren’t PCs and that alone is enough to put off lots of users. Having said that, manufacturers are finding ways and means to strengthen the value proposition of these devices further by incorporating technologies such as PoE into the mix.
“Eventually zero clients will be replaced by devices that are powered from the network (PoE). The thin client vendors will launch these products a few months down the line,” said Mehta of HP.
Talking about the choice between going in for a thin client or a PC, Microsoft’s Khanna said that a thin client was the better option for VDI. However, for those companies that weren’t ready to refresh their desktops just yet, Microsoft offered its volume licensing customers the option of dumbing down a PC to a thin client with the intention of improving control and manageability. For this, the vendor has Thin PC a separate thin client OS that it recently launched which converts an older PC into a thin client running a stripped down version of Windows 7.
Another potential trend that many vendors highlighted was that of employees bringing their own devices such as tablets or smartphones to work. In this scenario, desktop virtualization would allow a company’s IT department to lock things down by delivering the corporate environment through a VM so that the data never left the company’s premises insuring it in the case of loss or theft of a device and shielding the company’s networks from the possibility of malware attacks from infected client devices. “VDI works very well in this scenario. You click on an icon and your device joins the virtual network and everything else is isolated. As far as the traditional desktop/laptop environment is concerned, it will go the thin client route connecting through VDI/VMview,” said HP’s Mehta.
NetApp’s Masroor talked about the emerging class of ‘thin’ laptops as exemplified by Google’s Chromebook that booted up in a jiffy and could be set up to access a desktop image on the server offering a mobile desktop virtualization solution.
Delivering the desktop as-a-service
When it came to Desktop-as-a-Service or virtual desktops in the Cloud, the consensus was clear. This service, although quite popular abroad, has yet to catch on in India. Cisco’s Rege argued that it was just a matter of time, however, before it caught on not simply for business users but also for home users who would log into the public cloud from a thin device and consume the desktop from it.
BMC’s Kelkar said that the various characteristics of the Cloud that included on demand, self service, pay-per-use, resource pooling, elasticity etc. all tied well into the virtual desktop proposition.
Wipro has been offering DaaS abroad for quite some time now and it recently launched the service in India as well. Wipro’s Krishnan said that temporary workers could bring in their own devices and connect to virtual desktops provisioned by the customer in this scenario thereby reducing the headache of the IT department and helping customers save on cost even when they gave a stipend to their users to buy their own devices.
“You would see all of these offerings being delivered through a hybrid Cloud model where you retain the ability to work even when you are not connected to the Cloud. Through DaaS, you can have the option of picking VDI or terminal services. The issue is that of connectivity,” said Microsoft’s Khanna.
Citrix’s Deshmukh’s contention was that it would benefit customers who would otherwise find it hard to come up with the initial CAPEX that’s required for the adoption of desktop virtualization. To begin with, it requires an investment that’s 30% higher than buying conventional PCs. In the long term, however, there’s a positive RoI of 30% because companies save substantially on OPEX. The initial outlay on the servers and storage can be a hurdle for some and DaaS can do away with it.
And in the end
In many ways, every IT deployment’s success or failure comes down to how change management is handled. In the case of desktop virtualization, Rege argued that it wasn’t the technology that fell short. It was the mindset that was missing. Until companies were comfortable with workers being out of sight but not out of mind for days or even weeks at a time, they wouldn’t be comfortable deploying a technology that supported working from locations other than the office using a variety of devices.
Most of the folks interviewed for this story were emphatic that the concept of employees bringing in their own devices would also contribute to the popularity of desktop virtualization in the Indian enterprise.
Today, deployments are largely in IT/ITES followed by BFSI. It’s unlikely that PCs will be overthrown en masse in the near term but this technology does have compelling benefits for any scenario where there are hundreds or even thousands of workers who don’t really utilize their desktop PCs to the max and need a set of four-five applications that can very well be run in the data center. These are use cases, moreover, where the user is largely immobile like a bank clerk or a BPO worker. While you can access a virtual desktop from pretty much any device, be it a tablet or a smartphone, this aspect of desktop virtualization would have to
compete with widgets that have emerged as the preferred means of delivering enterprise data to mobile devices in a format that’s easy to comprehend and act on without overtaxing the limited processing capabilities of a mobile device. Then again, with the advent of devices such as the Chromebook, you could well end up seeing lots of users quite happily working on a desktop in the Cloud. For the corporate world, this would be delivered through the DaaS model. Connectivity remains the fly in the ointment. Although 3G’s here, coverage remains spotty even in the big cities and until that’s ironed out, desktop virtualization is likely to be more popular with the IT/ITES, BFSI crowd for the aforementioned use cases.