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Virtualising the desktop

SJ Pritchard Published 23 February 2011

Virtualising the desktop

Public bodies face some challenges in adopting desktop virtualisation, but some are realising significant benefits, writes SJ Pritchard

Government IT departments are already making widespread use of virtualisation in the data centre, reducing the number of servers they run, simplifying administration and cutting energy use.

Desktop virtualisation, however, is less mature. Some public bodies have been successfully delivering virtualised applications, often called server hosted desktops, to thin client devices but there are a high number who still depend on PCs, running a local version of Microsoft Windows.

A recent round table hosted by GC and sponsored by Citrix suggested that desktop virtualisation is now gaining ground. With IT budgets largely frozen or falling, and with the need to simplify the management of PC estates and improve data security, the traditional way of running desktop applications is under pressure.

Public sector organisations are looking for more flexibility: to run legacy applications on newer operating systems; to provide better support for mobile working; and to reduce the need for office space through hot desking. Proponents suggest that, implemented with care, desktop virtualisation should be able to help in all these areas.

It is rarely a simple project. It requires a good understanding of both the desktop estate and available server resources, either in the organisation's own data centre or through an outsourced provider.

IT directors also need to understand interdependencies between applications and which of them can and cannot be virtualised, as well as the needs of different groups of staff. But for standard desktop and back office applications, desktop virtualisation technology is more than up to the task. Some local authorities have even run quite complex applications, such as geographical information systems (GIS), under a virtualised environment.

Technical issues appear to be less of a hurdle than a feeling that some software applications, especially those in the local government back office, are not yet ready for virtualisation. Perhaps the biggest barrier is legacy licensing that prevents applications running under virtual machines. Among attendees whose organisations run virtual desktop environments, between 10-20% of workstations were still either running outside virtualisation, or were allocated to specific members of staff.

Nonetheless, most attendees believed the move had been worthwhile. In some cases, organisations are opting for hybrid environments with some applications running under virtualisation and others, including those with particular hardware or security requirements, running locally on the PC. Even in these cases, there are benefits, such as making older applications easier to run across a mixed estate of PCs with a range of operating systems.

Of course, the financial climate creates a problem, with more than one delegate reporting that new capital spending in IT was effectively ruled out for the next year to 18 months. But it could be possible to overcome this by transferring the costs of virtualisation to the operational budget on the grounds that it produces operational savings.

IT teams taking this approach will have to take into account that it cannot always provide a quick win, and that most of the cost savings come with time and effort. For example, there is the potential to deliver cost savings through improved management, but attendees agreed that this is likely to vary depending on the maturity of desktop systems management in organisations. Bodies with strong management strategies could make significant gains quickly, while for others the benefits will accrue over time, for example as operating systems need to be updated.

Organisations should, however, be able to defer capital spending on new desktop systems. For a number of attendees, the need to extend the working life of PCs was the main driver for a virtualisation project. Spending on new computer hardware was being deferred, or even cancelled by many organisations present, with talk of "sweating assets", in particular desktop PCs.

"The idea of a four year replacement cycle for PCs in most of our areas of operation has gone," said one attendee. "If you take the Windows approach, applications will stop working well on a PC after a number of years (due to updates)," explained another. "On a virtual PC, that link is broken so the device on the desktop can be a lot less powerful but still deliver (an up-to-date) experience."

Even organisations mostly using laptops are extending their working life through a move to virtualisation. One attendee, with an 80:20 split between laptop and desktop systems, was still able to move to virtual desktops, although this approach is gaining more ground in urban areas with good 3G cellular signals and widespread WiFi than in more rural or dispersed communities.

One of the most compelling reasons to move towards virtualised desktops is to help to exploit the cost savings from flexible working. Removing the need to provide every member of staff with a fixed desktop computer also removes the need to provide a fixed desk. In local government in particular, this is allowing authorities to free up buildings and release funds, even where there are no reductions in headcount.

Some organisations reported that they have reduced the ratio of desks to employees to seven or even six to 10. A further benefit from virtualisation comes from freeing up space for IT equipment in expensive office accommodation space that can cost up to £500 per square metre. "Freeing that up pays for a new laptop that will last for four years," one official said.

A further practical driver is the need to support mobile working, and the security requirements that come with it. Departments wanting to deploy line of business or back office applications to mobile workers face two obstacles: the compatibility of applications with mobile devices, and security requirements that demand that sensitive data is protected.

Although encrypting drives and memory on devices provides security, virtualisation allows applications to run on a device, but to wipe all data and applications at the end of each session, simply through shutting down the virtual machine. Attendees reported that it is possible to use thin clients and laptops running virtual desktops with 3G connections. Such connections can perform better than conventional back office applications, because in the event of connectivity problems the user only has to reconnect to the virtual machine and access to the application will not have been interrupted.

As more central and local government departments look to mobile working to increase flexibility and to reduce costs, IT is also been called on to support a wider number of devices and, in some cases, employees' own devices. One local authority has gone as far as to ask its staff to provide their own computers. At others, running virtual environments is a practical way to support both newer desktop operating systems, such as Windows 7, and emerging device categories, such as tablet PCs.

Several attendees pointed out that the idea of a "standard desktop" has not become a reality in the public sector, and that virtualisation achieves much of the same intended benefits, providing a way to manage the growing complexity of desktop systems whilst containing costs.

Perhaps because of this, systems integrators and outsourcing contractors servicing the public sector are also making more use of the technology.

It is also helping public sector employees working in cross-departmental teams. Council social services staff can use virtual desktops to access their applications at NHS sites, and vice versa, without anyone breaching their organisation's security polices. In a number of extreme cases, where staff previously had to run two computers side by side, virtualisation allows them to use just one terminal. Potentially, even a single application could run in a virtual desktop session in a web browser, if security or data protection requirements meant it could not run locally.

Given the inconvenience of some of the previous workarounds developed in the public sector, especially to meet security needs or to allow different organisations to share systems and information, attendees reported broad support for virtualisation.

Some IT users might be likely to blame the virtual environment when things do go wrong, but in general user feedback has been positive. One of the widely appreciated features is the ability to reboot or even re-image a desktop, or move the desktop environment to a new computer. Staff whose machines have failed can find their documents and desktop restored to a new machine, sometimes in minutes, and this is making virtualisation increasingly popular.

So too is the growing take-up of cloud services among public sector staff outside work. As IT users become more familiar with online services they can simply log into, wherever they are, they start to ask for similar services at work. And, as one attendee pointed out, moving applications, or the desktop, to a virtual environment today provides a valuable stepping stone to cloud based services in the near future.

Who took part
Crispin O'Connell deputy director, places and services, Welsh Assembly Government
David Wilde chief information officer, Westminster City Council
Deborah Chittenden executive director organisational transformation, Identity and Passport Service
Jon Bryant standards and practices team lead, National Policing Improvement Agency
Peter Scott ATIA head of information and technology architecture, Ministry of Justice
Sacha Rook capacity manager, RB Windsor and Maidenhead
Chris Mayers chief security architect, Citrix Systems
James Stevenson area vice president, Citrix Systems
Mark Say editor, GC Magazine (chair)

This event was sponsored by Citrix.

This article was published by Guardian Professional.







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