Solving the desktop dilemma

As IT departments in public sector establishments review their desktop technologies a number of key areas are accelerating the adoption of virtualisation.
    
Desktop replacement and centralisation: Standard PCs have relatively short refresh cycles, which adds to financial and maintenance overheads. Virtualisation can extend the life of old PCs and reduce hardware acquisition, maintenance and management costs through the adoption of thin client devices.
    
Desktop disaster recovery and business continuity: IT departments can provide automated back up, data protection and disaster recovery abilities for desktop environments. These levels of protection were traditionally reserved for server applications. Because virtual desktops are not tied to one appliance, users have a number of options for accessing the environment. Virtualisation delivers far greater levels of availability than physical environments can deliver, so end-users are ultimately more productive.
    
Desktop security: One of the main issues for IT organisations is how to stop sensitive data being lost or going outside the network and how to control what kind of material finds its way on to the network. Central enforcement of security policies and control over desktops gives organisations even greater control over desktop security, while features such as network encryption ensures that information is protected wherever virtual desktops are being accessed from.

Security
It is around security where much of the momentum behind desktop virtualisation has come. One of the overarching benefits of the virtual desktop model is that IT departments have far greater control over desktops and the assets they hold. Retaining centralised control of desktop environments makes security maintenance far easier.
    
Virtual machines can be specifically configured so that files cannot be saved onto local media or copied from local media onto the network. Furthermore, if a virtual desktop machine does become compromised, it is completely partitioned from other desktops and the underlying data centre hardware. The machine can simply be deleted and then recreated in its original state without any trace of the bug.
    
A newer concept is ‘offline desktops’ – this is the idea that virtual machines can be checked out from the data centre to a device, used offline and then checked back in when they get back on to the network. In checked out mode the virtual machine will be fully locked down so data security will not be compromised.
    
Not only does this approach increase security, but also does away with any compatibility issues that might be encountered with other technologies. As long as the local device has a desktop virtualisation product running then their normal desktop environment will be available to them wherever they are.

Maintenance

Maintenance of desktop resources is often a significant headache, particularly for organisations with multiple sites. Desktop virtualisation can significantly reduce this headache by simplifying many of the maintenance tasks and doing away with the need for engineers to go on-site. Patching or updating desktops can be particularly problematic with updates being sent over the network and potentially disrupting end-users.
    
By combining virtual desktops with thin client terminals further maintenance benefits can be realised. Thin clients are far more reliable than standard PCs because they are stripped of many of the components that typically malfunction. Virtualisation generally doubles the life of these machines by putting even less stress on the hardware.

End-user experience

Performance and end-user experience is a key consideration in selecting a desktop strategy. Previous centralised desktop approaches often suffered from latency issues and their hunger for computing resources often meant it was difficult to deliver particularly resource intensive applications using these methods. Because of this, the normal approach to delivering desktops has been to supply a standard corporate image which all employees have access to.
    
This approach has two significant shortcomings – the first being that from a licensing perspective the IT department is potentially paying for application licenses across the board which many staff may not require. With virtual desktops it becomes far easier to group users and create standard templates that contain only the applications required.
    
Secondly, because of the back-end flexibility which virtualisation delivers, performance tends to be far less of an issue for end-users. Resource utilisation can be monitored and virtual desktops moved between host machines, ensuring loads are balanced across the infrastructure and resources are allocated appropriately.
    
By ensuring access to a familiar Windows-based desktop environment and that performance is not an issue, virtual desktops can maximise productivity and ensure end-user acceptance – often the litmus test for any new IT initiative.

Environmental effects

The green agenda is now an accepted part of IT, and virtualisation has become synonymous with this trend. Hosting desktops in the data centre as part of a virtual desktop initiative doubles the replacement cycle of PCs or thin clients, reducing the significant environmental impact associated with manufacturing new equipment. Thin clients generally consume around 15 per cent as much power as a standard desktop computer so many organisations are looking to move to this model as part of their CSR initiatives.
    
The Greening Government ICT white paper published in July 2008 laid out a clear direction for public sector organisations to consider the energy efficiency, and disposal of IT equipment. Desktop virtualisation is driving the adoption of more energy efficient thin clients as well as extending the life of current desktop systems and can be a significant contributor to progress in any green initiatives.

Summary

Desktop computing strategies for local government organisations have reached a key inflexion point. The benefits of a centralised strategy driven by virtualisation technologies are more compelling than ever and offer benefits over both thick client and proprietary thin client approaches.
    
Whether the drivers are cost benefits, security, continuity and disaster recovery or achieving environmental targets, virtualisation now offers public sector IT new options that are worthy of consideration.

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