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Making the Case for Desktop Virtualization

The CIO of Lone Star College System shares his experience in evaluating the potential of virtual desktops.

Making the Case for Desktop Virtualization
Photo: iStockphoto

This is the first installment in a three-part series on desktop virtualization. Part II will focus on planning, design, and building a business case, while Part III will examine the TCO and ROI.

When implementing any new technology or system, IT executives usually want to cut to the chase: What's the TCO? What's the ROI? With desktop virtualization, however, making these determinations is anything but straightforward, since any calculation is tied to the overall goals and standards established during the planning phase. Furthermore, in a rapidly evolving market space, these standards have to be flexible while still keeping to the overall project goals.

Such considerations should prompt you to take the claims of the virtualization industry--whether it's cost savings or hardware reliability--with a grain of salt. While significant benefits may ultimately be attainable, none of them is likely to become a reality until you settle the following key questions: What problem are you solving, and who will benefit from the solution?

This story appears in the June 2013 digital edition of Campus Technology.

Are Virtual Desktops Strategic?
First, though, it is critical to define the strategic value of any virtual desktop project. The startup costs for these projects are high, and the actual ROI may not be realized until the fourth or fifth year--a timeline that may change as you phase in more systems. It's vital, then, that any desktop virtualization initiative be clearly aligned with your institution's strategic goals. If your school's top goal is student success, for example, how can virtual desktops support that goal as part of the IT value chain? If students currently have to visit campus to access IT resources related to instruction, then desktop virtualization would make perfect sense: By allowing students to use their own devices and access learning resources from anywhere, IT would be directly supporting the institution's primary strategic goal.

IT can also use desktop virtualization to support institutional and departmental goals for cost reduction and service improvement, neither of which--take note--are IT strategic goals. IT's role is to help academic and administrative units achieve their strategic goals, and lowering costs or improving service for them is one way to do that.

It's also important not to attempt too much at once. It's best to start with a single virtualization effort and expand from there. Depending on your institution's strategic goals, your decision about where to start might include any one of the following beneficiaries:

  • Administrators: Reduce costs and improve efficiencies in base functional areas.
  • Students: Improve their access to technology, applications, and mobility.
  • IT Department: Reduce overhead and simplify endpoint management.
  • Online Learners: Improve access to IT systems/software for online students.

Securing Buy-in and Resources
Every IT project, whether it's desktop virtualization or mobile device management, should be closely aligned with your institution's strategic goals. But in today's higher ed environment--where too many projects are competing for too few resources--it's a lot easier to get a green light if your initiative offers benefits above and beyond strategic alignment. And even then, it might not be enough. To increase your chances of success, it's vital that you also develop a communication plan to build support for desktop virtualization throughout the institution. If you've done your job, the campus community and the institution's leadership should be fully aware of its potential benefits:

Savings. The ability to repurpose existing hardware with virtual desktops can extend the hardware lifecycle, while enabling the hardware to run applications or operating systems that it previously couldn't. Due to the initial startup costs, however, these savings won't be realized until the second or third year of the project.

Scaling Computing Resources. Using virtual desktops to dynamically scale computing resources is a strategic advantage for colleges with rapid enrollment growth and a host of new facilities. While this opportunity is relevant only to organizations with established virtual desktop environments, it can be an end goal for any college.

Upgrading OS. Everyone faces the challenge of upgrading operating systems. Our customers want the latest, while our hardware or support staff might not be ready. The migration from Windows XP to Windows 7 provided a great opportunity to move to virtual desktops, since many systems did not have the ability to run Windows 7. Now another opportunity has arrived with the migration to Windows 8.

Mobility. Mobility is a great opportunity that is often overlooked in virtual desktop projects. For starters, it's a major selling point when you're trying to secure buy-in: The ability for faculty, staff, and students to access their virtual desktop using multiple devices should not be underestimated. And don't forget the cost savings that stem from reducing internal desktop resources as the focus shifts to support for student-owned devices.

Desktop Security. Compared with physical desktop computers, it is easier to secure virtual desktops and data.

Barriers to Deployment
While everyone likes to focus on the positives, it would be a mistake to ignore the significant challenges to starting a virtual desktop initiative. The first--startup costs--is often easy to overcome if the TCO and ROI are calculated correctly. (Figuring out the TCO and ROI will be covered in the third installment of this series.)

The more challenging barriers are organizational. To speed adoption, your customers must come to believe that a virtual desktop is not a substandard PC. In fact, a user's experience--in terms of performance and access--should improve. Unfortunately, key benefits such as reliability will not be evident until the systems have been in production for six to 12 months.

The next organizational challenge is ramping up your IT shop to manage this new environment. A virtual desktop environment has many moving parts and can be operationally intensive due to the shift of support from the end point to the data center. Ensuring that you have the right skill sets in place before moving to production is hard to do. Indeed, the shift in how IT functions cannot be understated. The role of support technicians, for example, changes significantly in areas such as troubleshooting, setting base images, and application delivery--and these items can make or break the project. While process standards can make the transition easier, training and process integration will increase the likelihood of success.

The final organizational challenge is infrastructure support--the core support of the virtual desktop infrastructure and network. During the planning process, it is critical not only to train the staff, but to create a seamless integration of support from the server and network-system administrators to the customer-support technicians.

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