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When to launch desktops in the cloud

Even though Desktop as a Service sounds like a good idea, placing VDI in a private cloud doesn't always make sense.

Before any data center jumps on the cloud or VDI bandwagons, it's important to make certain there is a good reason for using either technology. The most important step in doing this is to fully understand the scope of each technology.

If a company with a private cloud requires a subset of end users to access only a few applications that reside in the cloud, there may not be a need for those users to receive full desktops. Using published application technology, such as Citrix XenApp, can save time and money because it only uses the space and storage those specific applications require.

Much like VDI, but without the desktop portion, published applications allow end users to connect to assigned apps remotely, i.e., anywhere outside the corporate network. When configured properly, the end user experiences a seamless environment in which the application appears as if it was installed and running locally on his machine. Users can log into a single platform and access all of their required resources.

Putting a virtual desktop environment into a private or public cloud can have a positive effect, if it's installed in the right environment. Here's where it might make sense.

End-user experience. Vista hasn't exactly worked out as planned and Windows XP is approaching end-of-life, which forces many organizations to look to Windows 7. But like every software migration it can prove to be very expensive, because it requires new hardware, new training, compatibility testing with legacy applications, running side-by-side environments during the transition and so on. These factors can quickly erode budgets.

This signals an ideal time to move from physical desktops to a virtual desktop infrastructure hosted on a private cloud within your data center.

For example, Citrix's XenDesktop lets an end user sign on to a PC at an office and work on a Microsoft Word document. That same user can then migrate to another office and launch the same session and continue working on the same document. While working remotely on an iPad, the user can connect to a private cloud that lets him resume his session on a Windows 7 virtual desktop. When the connection occurs, the user can resume working on the same Word document.

Data integrity. IT administrators are always concerned about security and data integrity. Add the worry of following regulations and compliance standards, and you have a very complicated environment that must be carefully managed and secured. Securing applications by hosting them in a private cloud is one way to protect data; you can secure desktops in the same way.

With VDI, sensitive desktop data is protected on a server instead of sitting on an unprotected PC. So, running a centralized cloud-based VDI model can help meet requirements of government-imposed standards such as Sarbanes-Oxley or HIPAA. Remember, in this scenario, we are no longer storing data on the end user's device. Rather, all necessary information is delivered from a centralized location. This helps prevent security leaks, assists with any government compliance audits that may occur and also prevents data loss from lost or stolen hardware.

You can also host virtual desktops in a public cloud or use a virtual desktop hosting provider. Accessing full desktops in the public cloud doesn't have to be a regulatory nightmare, either. Users can sign in to Web portals or interfaces using Active Directory, which gives them access to their own personal section of a corporate cloud. From there, users can launch applications, reconnect to other sessions or use virtual desktops.

Organizational changes. Businesses encounter mergers and acquisitions all the time. If your company is going through an organization change, then a cloud-ready VDI deployment may be a necessity.

After a merger, the new business unit often is required to use technologies not immediately available in the data center. If your virtual desktop infrastructure is hosted by a public cloud provider, IT teams can give virtual desktops and key business applications to new groups of people within minutes.

Let's assume, for instance, that the newly acquired company is located several thousand miles away from the new parent company. The IT manager must give 50 key people in the new branch access to various applications. By using cloud-based VDI, the engineering team can spin up 50 new pooled or assigned desktops and deliver them to the new branch. By giving the new company a Web portal to log into, they can access applications, desktops and file shares located in the main data center servers -- without having to immediately migrate data to the newly acquired data center.

Single sign-on. Mobility and access to applications are major initiatives for many organizations. Some companies are instating a "bring your own computer" program that allows users to use their own laptops for work.

New technologies use identity federation for single sign-on access to cloud apps. Software as a Service (SaaS) vendors like Layer7 and PingFederate allow enterprises to mirror Active Directory to the cloud for streamlined access.

Other technologies such as Citrix's Open Cloud Access place SaaS applications completely under one roof. Admins can assign cloud-based apps to a user's set of desktop applications. When the user sees on his desktop, he only needs to click on the icon once to enter the portal. By eliminating credential complexity, an infrastructure can bring cloud-based SaaS applications to the end user quickly, more securely and more efficiently.

Depending on the enterprise, one approach may be better than the other. Since each environment is unique, it's important to develop a business use case for the technology you choose. To see the biggest return on an investment, proper planning is needed to determine whether VDI in the cloud or a published application environment is more suitable.

Bill Kleyman, MBA, MISM, is an avid technologist with experience in network infrastructure management. His engineering work includes large virtualization deployments as well as business network design and implementation. Currently, he is a Virtualization Solutions Architect at MTM Technologies, a national IT consulting firm.

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