Say the word "virtualization" and people usually think of servers -- and it's not hard to figure out why. In June 2007, the Canada-based market-research firm Strategic Counsel surveyed 969 public and private organizations worldwide with a minimum of 500 employees. The survey, sponsored by Computer Associates, revealed that at least 39 percent of respondents had adopted server virtualization technology. It also projected that the number of organizations using the technology would grow by 19 percent over the next 18 months.
Server virtualization's popularity is widespread and its benefits are well known. Virtualization allows multiple operating systems to run on a single hardware platform, which reduces the amount of equipment needed, cuts energy consumption and frees data center floor space. Now the IT world's goodwill toward virtualization has grown significant enough for people to start embracing the technology's other manifestation: virtualization of the desktop.
Imagine sitting down at a Mac and running Windows or logging onto a PC and choosing from Windows or Linux -- without changing machines. Furthermore, when you change machines you can access the same customized workspace no matter what machine you're on, whether it's a notebook, PC or something else. Multiple computers or end-user devices share the resources of one central computer or server. Since these resources are centrally hosted, a user doesn't necessarily have to use the same device each time to gain access. Desktop virtualization gives this convenience and flexibility with a minimum of end-user fuss.
There are two ways desktop virtualization typically works: In the client-side method, the software, and sometimes additional hardware, is installed on one computer, which allows it to run more than one operating system or deliver these systems virtually to other devices. With the server-side method -- the more common choice -- a server hosts virtual machines that people access remotely on end-user devices. In this scenario, an end-user accesses a virtual desktop by logging in on a device, then the server delivers an "image," or virtual desktop workspace, to the end-user device. This image is the operating system people use just as they would a "normal" operating system.
Virtualization can take place with PCs, laptops and thin clients -- machines with little processing and storage capacity of their own. Thin clients have a few noticeable advantages over their "thick" cousins. For one, since they can be configured to not house any application data of their own, network managers need only go to the server to handle spyware or other malicious threats. And if data is stored on the server instead of the thin client, no data is lost if the thin client is lost, damaged or stolen.
Taking the Virtual Plunge
Government decision-makers such as Robert James, IT director of Woodbury, Minn., are intrigued by the possibilities of desktop virtualization. His department already has a server ready to support a pilot project that's planned for 2009. He estimates that the technology will improve the department's ability to standardize user experiences across workstations.
"What happens over time with the traditional workstations is every system seems to get tweaks -- little applets, plug-ins or whatever get added to it," he said. "It gets customized and just slowly, over time, that computer slows down. We try to manage that, but we just haven't done a good job of overall managing, trying to keep those computers -- the configuration -- standardized."
Never-ending computer refreshment cycles complicate this problem. They force people to use different equipment with different native operating systems. James will use desktop virtualization to solve this.
"We'll be able to standardize an image for a department, saying, 'These are the applications this department needs,'" James said. Through virtual computing, that image will be delivered to all employees who need it, regardless of the hardware they use. "We think it'll clean up and standardize everyone's computer
and keep their performance consistent from year to year," he said.
James projects desktop virtualization also will save the city money and spare the environment. For example, centralized workstation management will reduce the number of trips IT staff members must make to end-user machines to perform repairs. James also plans to add more thin clients, which require less energy to operate.
"They won't have hard drives in them, so every workstation, there will be a portion, we're thinking 20 to 30 percent energy savings of not having that hard drive," he said. In the pilot project, James and his colleagues plan to verify this by measuring the power consumption in the virtualized environment and comparing it to nonvirtualized computing.
James has many companies to choose from when he does finally take that virtual step. Think of any major server virtualization player and they'll have desktop offerings too. VMware, a titan in the server world, is looking to do the same for desktops. Citrix, Microsoft and a number of other companies are also looking to become big names in desktop virtualization.
Identifying the Need
Before implementing desktop virtualization, agencies should ensure it's best for what they need.
"The benefits are usually cost savings, but I think of that in kind of a long-term scope. Obviously setting up a virtual desktop environment is going to cost you money out of the gate," said Shawn McCarthy, research director of infrastructure optimization and vendor programs for Government Insights, an IDC company. IDC is a firm that researches trends in the IT market. Agencies considering desktop virtualization should do a return-on-investment analysis, he said. "Look and see what it's going to cost you long term and anticipate what it's going to save you by going in that direction."
Virtualization supports some applications better than others. Programs that demand a lot of processing power -- like computer-aided design and other engineering software -- may not be the best fit.
"They will work if you have enough network bandwidth and enough processing power on your server, so you can't automatically say, 'No, these don't work.' But is that the best place for you to start if you want to migrate to a virtual desktop? Probably not, simply because of the bandwidth issues and the processing issues," McCarthy said.
Virtualization can also be a hindrance to processing graphics. "You wouldn't want to watch full-motion video and [play] games on a virtualized network because the screen refresh rates just aren't what they are when you're attached to a computer with a 256 MB video card and a digital DVI input as opposed to an analog input," said Brian Thomas, information systems network management specialist for the Oklahoma Department of Corrections.
"You only want to virtualize people who are office-based. They do word processing, spreadsheets, databases, Web access -- that kind of stuff," he said. "A normal business application, you'd be fine with that."
Thomas works in the southwest district of his department's jurisdiction, which has 21 offices. He has deployed desktop virtualization in numerous places for corrections personnel for various office functions, including accessing Oklahoma's offender management system. He chose a solution by NComputing that takes a computer's unused hardware resources and spreads them to other clients. He installed the company's hardware and software on Dell PCs, transforming them into serverlike units to support the thin clients they're connected to. In some offices, one Dell supports seven thin clients; in others, the ratio is 1-to-1; and in still other cases, the relationship is somewhere between those two extremes.
"I'm saving about $400 per seat on every thin client I set up because they already had a monitor; they already had a keyboard and mouse," he said. "All I'm doing is replacing an old CPU with a thin
client, attaching it to a pretty decent Dell computer, and I'm up and running."
A Virtual Alternative
Desktop virtualization can also help public-sector departments offer citizens more cost-effective and manageable computing solutions. Harper Apted did just that for the Warsaw Community Public Library in Indiana. He's currently the network administrator there and in 2004, he had a problem. The library was experiencing more foot traffic, so staff added more computers to accommodate the public -- more places for people to access card catalogs and use the Internet.
"Basically we wanted something to replace our aging computers. We had gotten all of our public Internet computers about the same time -- all Windows 2000 boxes, Gateways, old gigahertz boxes -- and they were just breaking down," he said. "At any given time, there was between two and five of them down."
And they were plagued by malware and spyware. Apted installed add-ons like antivirus software to mitigate the problem, but it wasn't enough. He abandoned Windows for Linux and went to desktop virtualization to standardize the experience and streamline the management of various workstations. He found a library-specific option called DiscoverStation from Canada-based company Userful. DiscoverStation has since been rebranded as Userful Desktop.
"The way it works, you can have between two and 10 stations connected to one PC. They just put in multiple video cards, extra USB slots, and you plug everything in and it sends a different output to each station. You literally have that many stations directly plugged into one computer," he said. "We currently have five boxes with four each, so we have four people working off one box."
Apted said the transition from Windows, which everyone is familiar with, to Linux, was virtually a nonissue for users, except for one patron who filed a complaint.
And there was one huge benefit to virtualization -- cost savings.
"The Microsoft platform is ridiculously expensive, at least compared to what we have for a budget; it's just not viable," he said. On the other hand, the current Linux Userful environment is affordable. "Not only does it fit within our budget; personally [I think] it's more secure." Apted would like to deploy more virtual desktops for the staff, but budgetary constraints have forced him to wait.
How Desktop Virtualization Works
Users utilize applications that work on an operating system, such as Window, Linus, Solaris or MacOS, at which point, the operating systems talks to the virtual driver. Though the operating system thinks it's accessing the hardware, it's not -- it gets information from a virtual driver. Communication is facilitated by the hypervisor, which acts as the middleman -- catching and redirecting data -- between the virtual driver and the physical hardware.
Hilton Collins is a former staff writer for Government Technology and Emergency Management magazines.