Virtual desktops are not new. I have talked about them before and about new software that makes virtual desktops and applications more seamless for employees. No virtual desktops of one sort or another have been in use since the days of the old green screen terminals that ran sessions on massive mainframes. I find though that I see more and more value in virtual desktops today for smaller businesses than I did just a few years ago.
The mobile revolution has spawned the use of the tablet. Tablets are great on their own. Tablets can run powerful applications and are mobile yet highly connected. People are buying tablets for personal use and bringing them to the office or using them to bring the office home. People are setting aside their old laptops in favor of the comfortable, light weight, instant-on appeal of the tablet. New tablets like the Surface Pro 2 allow a full laptop experience in a tablet form. Storage space in my opinion is a bit of a concern to me still in these new devices not to mention security and control. Enter the virtual desktop.
The virtual desktop can be built from scratch or from an image of an existing physical computer.
You also have the ability to quickly create new virtual machines from a template with all the apps an employee will need already installed and configured. The best part is you have full control over the environment without needing to manage your employee’s new phone, tablet, or laptop. With a virtual desktop you and your employees keep the work part of their technology separate from their personal part. Using virtual desktops can even save you money. If you provide hardware for your employees to use at their desks you can use lower cost hardware for longer periods of time without having to upgrade them. Upgrading the virtual desktop is as easy as changing some settings to allocate more RAM or processor cores from the server to the desktop. If your employee uses their personal device to access your system you might not even need to purchase a desktop for your employee, saving even more money. The BYOD (Bring Your Own Device) trend can be used to work in your favor. Now that Microsoft has released remote desktop apps for Android and iOS based devices you can now connect remotely to your virtual desktop from just about any device on the market. Because Windows 8.1 is touch enabled the Microsoft Remote Desktop app passes touch gestures from your device right through to the virtual desktop, giving you a native Windows touch experience. Your Virtual Desktops don’t have to be Windows 8.1 but there are certainly some advantages if you are connecting to them from touch enabled tablets or laptops.
Setting up virtual desktops doesn’t require a lot of hardware or software. At a minimum you need a server running a hypervisor like Microsoft HyperV or VMware ESX and licenses for Windows. Hook the server up to your network, build some virtual machines, and join them to your domain. Assign the virtual machine to an employee and give them access through remote desktop and you are off and running. I would not recommend this set up for more than a very few users or for testing purposes but at the most basic level that is all you need to get started. Some evaluation of hardware requirements for the server and additional management applications may be needed to scale this solution out to larger numbers of employees.
Microsoft and VMware both have solutions for managing virtual desktop infrastructures (VDI). Microsoft had an add on license for software assurance license customers called the Microsoft Desktop Optimization Pack which includes usage rights for the Microsoft Virtual Desktop Infrastructure. This solution also relies on the use of another Microsoft product called System Center Configuration Manager which is used to manage the configuration provisioning of the virtual desktops. The VMware Horizon Suite is a suite of products that similarly helps to manage and provide access to virtual desktops allowing employees to access their business environment virtually from almost any device. These solutions for VDI come with some upfront cost that is not insignificant but is well worth looking into if you are interested in making the move to a virtual desktop environment and empower your employees to be productive on any device, anytime, from anywhere in the world.