VDI? OMG.

For two days last week, I was at the annual Chicago installment of our Microsoft Licensing Boot Camp. I’ve been to several of our camps to help present a couple of the topics. I’ve also noticed something unusual (and somewhat frightening) occurring.

What I’ve seen is the growth of – or at least growth of the interest of – Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). In VDI, the desktop operating system that a user interacts with is virtualized (and often remotely located) rather than being a desktop PC or even a laptop with Windows that the user runs locally. The theory is that by virtualizing, you can centralize deployment, management and servicing, spin VMs up or down as you need them, and sometimes use layering technologies to make this management more efficient. In an environment where you task users with buying/bringing their own work PC, VDI also gives you a way to secure the user’s work environment by providing a common image to all users, secured through RDP.

I say theory because, barring dramatic improvements in how Windows handles state separation (user/app/OS), layering technologies are fraught with some peril. Perhaps some of Citrix’s offerings, or other companies I haven’t seen have unwound the Windows state problem and really enabled efficient virtualization that isn’t just N VM’s for N users. As I’ve never seen otherwise, though, I’m inclined to believe that VDI – and virtualization as a whole, save you money on hardware but do not save you nearly as much in terms of deployment, management and servicing as you might think. With client VDI in particular, you had 8 physical systems horizontally – now you have 8 virtual systems stacked vertically. Hope you’ve chosen a good hypervisor and clustered server to run it on so those virtual desktops have high availability.

VDI has this certain ring to it. If you’ve been in IT, you know the sound. It’s the sound of a technology your CIO asked you to investigate because he heard from another CIO on the golf course, “Wait. You haven’t deployed VDI yet?” Yes, it’s a bright shiny object (BSO) with untold perils if you don’t license it properly.

In NYC when we asked who was looking at doing VDI, two – maybe three – people raised their hands. In Chicago, it was easily 85% of the room either looking at it or doing it now. In NYC, an attendee quietly asked me, “Why would someone ever do VDI instead of Remote Desktop?” Logical question, given RDP’s easily understood – and enforced – licensing, highly scalable architecture (far more users in far less space, RAM, and processor utilization), fault tolerance, etc. I quietly replied back, “I have no idea.” In Chicago, when we had wrapped, an attendee walked up and basically asked me the same thing. He wanted me to help him understand why people are so in love with VDI. I told him, much like NYC, “I don’t understand it either.

VDI isn’t cheap. It’s definitely not free. While you can theoretically remove Windows desktops as the client endpoint and use an RDP dumb terminal (or an iPad), you face licensing complexities as a direct result of doing so.

Microsoft is a better chess player than you are when it comes to licensing. Depending on what you access a Windows VDI system from (using RDP from a user-owned Windows laptop, for example), sometimes you may have, or may not have, properly licensed the client system to ever connect. There’s no magical licensing to prevent you from doing the wrong thing – only the potential penalty of an audit for not having done so correctly. What I’m saying is, there are some huge licensing qualifications that you have to work through in order to implement VDI with the Windows desktop, and not understanding them before you ever look into implementing VDI is kind of like asking Felix Baumgartner to jump from his capsule without ever doing any sort of testing. You could very easily wind up hurting yourself.

As to using an iPad as a VDI client, I’m really confused as to who (if anyone, actually) does this. Accessing Win32 applications from an iPad is akin to torture. It’s a sub 10″ screen, with touch only, no mouse, and a soft keyboard. What kind of tasks are you asking users to perform with this? Either move the task to a proper task-optimized  Web app or iOS app, or give them a proper desktop or laptop system on which to perform their task. I may well dive into this topic in a future post. Sure to generate some conversation.

Are you using VDI? Do you understand the licensing of Windows, Office, and every other software component you’re using? Do you disagree with me that VDI is just a BSO (and believe that you’re saving tons of money with it)? Let me know what you think.

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