Beyond Virtual Desktop Infrastructure

I wrote a blog a few days ago that I wanted to modify because I didn’t get it right.  First of all, please note that everything I write here are my own thoughts and not those of my employer.

This article is about Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI), end user computing, Desktop As a Service (DaaS), or whatever you want to call it.  Its very relevant to many organizations today and there are a lot of great solutions and people very vested in it.  Is this the year of the virtual desktop?  It is to some people!  To other people, it was 4 years ago and what’s the big deal?  But to some organizations, its not going to happen ever because there’s no use case.

What problems VDI solves

Let’s think about the problems VDI solves.  It gives us our enterprise environment remotely and allows Desktop support to control the image that workers get.  That’s what it does, not the problem it solves.  The problem it solves is giving us our enterprise applications anywhere.  You see, many of us could care less about having our mandated enterprise environment.  When I worked for my formal employer, the first thing I did when I got my corporate issued laptop was to promptly erase their blessed image install the whole thing from scratch.  Wipe it out, get rid of employer stuff and put Linux on it.  Then I was in control.  Then I’d worry about getting the apps on that I needed and used and not everything else that I didn’t need.

Desktop support probably didn’t like that, but I never called or used them and they never called or used me.  I got the apps I wanted and whenever I gave a presentation, I never had a little window at the bottom prompt me that my computer needed to reboot in 10 minutes to install some extremely important updates.  We lived separate happy lives.

Desktop support is not evil.  They need to control the operating system image to ensure the applications could run and run securely.  Plus they aren’t catering to people like me.  They’re catering to people who just want to get things done and not mess with things like I do.   So when you look at what VDI is today, its extending Desktop Support’s control into a virtual image.  I think this is great!  Then I can run my own image and whenever I need my corporate apps, I can log into a VDI image.  Perfect.

Why VDI is temporary for most Enterprises

But, VDI in most cases is a patch, or a temporary solution to getting today’s legacy applications to enterprise users.  Here’s where it works very well:  If you have an application that was written for Windows XP or Windows 7, then creating a virtual desktop to serve those apps can be very effective.  But applications have changed.  Most of my applications I use are web based.  I still use Excel,  and PowerPoint, but I store those now in Box that my company provided me as a secure place to put them.  (Think: DropBox for corporations)

My Desktop support is now application support.  They make applications available to me and I can use whatever device I want to access them.   They now have even greater control:  When my corporate support team updates our configuration tool that I use to create build of materials (BoM) for my customers, they control upgrades and revisions.  I never have to do it on my laptop.  Even if I liked the old way better, I have no control.  Application support now has more control than ever and ensures no one is running older apps.  Its great!  (You may have seen people complain against the new Facebook layout in the past.  Nothing they can do, because its not an app they run on their desktop)

Applications continue to migrate this way.  No one is continuing to build the next great desktop application.  They’re looking to make applications that run anywhere on anything.  Even Microsoft Office runs on my iPad!

In fact, if you look at it:  Desktop support (newly rechristened as : Application support) is actually getting more control while I feel like I’m getting more control!  What a great arrangement for two type-A personalities.

Skipping VDI 

I thought about this a little bit over the last few years but it wasn’t made super clear to me until about 2 weeks ago.  I happened upon a visit to a little known school district in the mountains of Utah.  Davis County school district  is the most advanced public school district I have ever seen.  I was blown away.  We started out talking about their applications and data center plans.  Mark Reid, the IT director, and several of his coworkers have been at the school district for the last 30 years.  Its a testament to see what the power of vision and long standing partnerships can achieve.  From the very beginning they’ve been writing their own applications to deliver IT services to the district.

Unlike many of the IT shops that I work with, Davis County employees a staff of developers that churn out their own applications for the school district.  From payroll, to financial, to grades they are doing it.  In fact, they even have an application myDSD that allows you to log in from the web or even on your iPhone or Android to check grades, notify if your child will be absent from school, and pretty much anything else you might need from a school district.  Wow.   I bet your school district doesn’t have anything like that.

The applications speak to each other through different software layers and protocols but they all come back to an Oracle RAC cluster.  This is where all the data is consolidated and backed up. They’ve already got Office 365 for the students out there.

During our meeting, one of the people in the room asked if Davis County School District was thinking about VDI.  Before Mark could answer, I already knew:  They didn’t have legacy apps.  There was no reason to deliver a virtual desktop.  All the applications could be accessed from the web or iOS/Android clients.  You see, if you already have apps that can live anywhere, you don’t need to serve a special desktop image.

The real problem they need to solve is a way to stitch together distributed data centers and develop a plan to source workloads to different clouds.

Where VDI will always be important

VDI is still and will be important to many organizations.  After all, it sure is better than installing and managing a bunch of desktops in a computer lab.  People still have legacy apps and there are license restrictions that may make you have to do it on a blessed desktop image.

But one area that is really growing the use of VDI to share powerful GPUs for heavy graphics applications.  As data continues to explode, visualizing it will be ever more important.  That is why I don’t see an obvious replacement or better way to do this.

Implications 

How do you think this transition of applications being centered on a desktop to being cloud enabled will effect the future? Back around 2006 when I was a remote worker at IBM they announced we could no longer expense our internet service.  They reasoned that most homes had this anyway and besides it was a great way for IBM to cut cost.   HP followed and so did others.   Soon all the tech companies started to do it.  Most companies don’t pay for remote access even though a significant amount of employees work from home.  (source:  my friends)

Today most companies will issue laptops to their knowledge workers.  Its great and they refresh every few years.  But could there be a time when employers say:  You already have a device (computer,  iPad, etc) we don’t need to pay for that anymore.  Just use our VPN service to get your applications and you are good.   Perhaps instead what they would do is give us an allowance of money that could be spent on a machine.

I don’t think this will happen at my employer soon because a nice laptop machine is a nice perk that makes employees happy.  But what about the universities and schools?  Would they eventually just shut down the computing labs and mandate all students bring their own?  Probably not for the engineering/art ones as I discussed above where they need GPUs.  But My friend’s kid 4 years ago went to a private school.  It was mandated  that  every student get a Mac Book.    The days may not be far off.

So next time you are evaluating whether or not this is the year of the virtual desktop, first look at your strategy for delivering applications anywhere.  Perhaps resources should be diverted towards new applications or BYOD initiatives to get off the legacy applications that are tying you down.  Remember:  Nobody wants or cares about your enterprise desktop image (nobody in their right mind).  They just want applications that work and allow them to get things done.