The virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) hype cycle has almost come full circle, with early adopters quickly discovering the technical or practical limits of the technology, while more recent VDI implementations have been much more successful than earlier forays into the virtual world. Now that VDI deployments are more common and more successful, we have a much clearer idea of what it takes to implement VDI in a way that works. That clarity positions 2016 as the year of wider acceptance for VDI, as many of the original technology challenges have been effectively addressed or eliminated. Let's take a quick look at the history and current state of VDI technology.
Just as hypervisors did for server virtualization more than a decade ago, VDI requires a new way of thinking about how to best provide desktop computing services to end users. At the macro level, VDI is another attempt by IT to regain control of the user's desktop, control that was essentially lost at the beginning of the PC revolution 25 years ago. The end goal of VDI is to balance an end user's desire to control their own computing environment with the desires of IT to ensure a low-cost, secure, scalable, supportable platform for end users. This tug of war continues as each party seeks to exert the maximum control over their own computing domain, though ongoing VDI developments strike an acceptable balance between end users with complete control over their desktops running amok and IT wanting to make their life easier by restricting what end users can and cannot do to or with their desktops.
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Performance and Cost Challenges
The biggest complaint about early VDI implementations was mostly due to insufficient performance of the underlying infrastructure. Even as little as just two years ago, typical VDI network, server and storage performance under load was simply insufficient to support the high level of CPU, video and network traffic generated by VDI implementations. The explosion of high-performance hyper-converged infrastructure offerings and a plethora of new cost-effective options in the field of storage technology have mostly solved the infrastructure performance issues that plagued early VDI installations. Cost-effective, high-performance VDI infrastructure is now a reality, and there are a number of VDI-specific hardware/software bundles on the market that can make VDI a success at a price that was inconceivable just a few years ago.
Handling Sensitive Data
Another historical concern with VDI is the security of data on shared platforms such as VDI. This concern led the VDI industry to address limitations in the security of VDI desktops and the underlying infrastructure. Corporate governance and compliance directives that apply to the security and retention of personally identifiable information (PII) within corporate IT infrastructures have played an important role in how VDI vendors handle sensitive data. As federal rules and regulations such as HIPAA and the FINRA made privacy and data security a high priority, VDI vendors were forced to gain certifications that verify all PII is held securely. This usually encompasses encryption of all data, both at rest and in motion. Encryption and de-encryption, of course, take additional computing horsepower, so that is yet another challenge for VDI vendors that were already struggling with performance issues before introducing encryption into the equation.
Other Usage Challenges
Just as IT had to get used to a new paradigm in the migration to virtualize servers, the VDI concept of a user workspace requires a different way to think about the desktop. The concept of end users having a dedicated workspace that resides somewhere other than on their local computer takes some getting used to, whether that workspace is located in a private, public or hybrid cloud.
For users, the fact that their desktop is still running—and remembers its exact state from the end of their last session—is a revolutionary concept. Users like being able to simply log off of their virtual desktop knowing that it's still "running" in the cloud and that they can pick up right where they left off at any time.
Finally, the ongoing explosion of BYOD and mobile computing has also been a bit of a learning curve for VDI vendors. More mobile- and BYOD-capable VDI solutions are coming to market, as supporting and embracing mobile corporate computing is no longer an option for VDI vendors—it's a requirement.
Underlying technology is primed to catch up with the original promise of VDI in 2016, allowing IT shops to cut costs while end users struggle to remember why they were so attached to their physical desktop to begin with. In this tug of war, both sides just may win.