Channel partners offering virtual desktop solutions found themselves in a tough spot just a few years ago.
The technology, dubbed virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), seemed like a logical follow-on sale to customers heavily engaged with server virtualization. But while the server-side category found wide use, its desktop counterpart encountered adoption challenges. The main problem: a far from compelling return-on-investment story.
While server virtualization let organizations consolidate boxes for a quick return, VDI failed to offer a rapid payback. The basic sales pitch focused on ease of IT administration, greater security and desktop cost savings. But VDI's infrastructure demands, particularly in storage, made ROI a discouraging prospect. Uptake was limited.
VDI, however, has made considerable progress over the last 12 months, according to solutions providers. ROI is faster now and building a business case is easier than it used to be. In addition, technology trends such as bring your own device (BYOD) and enterprise mobility have given resellers a reason to revisit customers who previously balked at the technology.
"When the technology was immature, there was not a whole lot of ROI out there," noted Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions Inc., a solution provider specializing in virtualization. "It was a tough sell as a simple desktop replacement solution. It took a little while for the technologies to advance and for additional business drivers like mobility to convince customers that it was a viable solution."
As for what they're selling, resellers tend to focus on Citrix Systems' XenDesktop and VMware's View. They may also package and brand their own virtual desktop services.
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With VDI technology, the operating systems and applications that once ran directly on a user's desktop computer exist instead as virtual machines residing on a central server. A single server can potentially run dozens of virtual desktops. The server-centric approach lets customers use thin clients or zero clients instead of fully loaded PCs or laptops.
Centralization simplifies updates and patches since an IT staff can work with a few "gold" desktop images as opposed to wandering around an office to update physical machines. Centralization improves data protection. And moving processing chores to a server shrinks client-side hardware costs.
But those selling points and the cost savings potential have bumped into infrastructure issues. The VDI scenario shifts images and data to central servers and storage. Capacity becomes an issue, as does performance. Boot storms can swamp the virtualized environment when users arrive at work en masse and access their desktops. The solution -- costly investments in technologies such as storage-area networks -- was enough to keep some potential customers away from VDI.
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The case for persistent vs. non-persistent VDI
Brown said storage was the biggest culprit hindering desktop virtualization's return on investment. But he noted that CPU and RAM were still fairly expensive when VDI first surfaced, so the cost of moving core processing off the desktop and into the data center presented another obstacle. Infrastructure costs pushed ROI out as much as five years, Brown said.
That market impasse, however, caught a break when the mobility trend began to develop.
"Organizations have quickly come to the realization that desktop virtualization does not have the same level of ROI as server virtualization. As such, there are other key drivers that are leading to the adoption of the technology," said Kennith Rindt, senior vice president of sales and strategic alliances at AEC Group Inc. "One of the most prevalent drivers is the need to address the proliferation of disparate devices within their IT environment."
VDI applies to mobile devices in much the same way the technology supports desktop computers: It boosts security and reduces the management burden.
Rindt said adopting desktop and application virtualization as part of a BYOD strategy can lead to decreased management costs, improved security and lower hardware costs. Those factors all contribute to a lower total cost of ownership. Indeed, BYOD and mobility have catalyzed desktop virtualization services demand. Sudhir Verma, vice president of consulting services at Force 3, a solutions provider with a desktop virtualization focus, said BYOD and mobility provide use cases that help justify a desktop virtualization project.
"Traditionally, virtualization has been based on operational cost savings or capital cost savings, but other use cases are becoming stronger and more compelling," he said. "It's not just about cost savings and IT administration. It's about user experience and how they want to work today."
Accordingly, solution providers hoping to dive into desktop virtualization services may want to position the technology as part of a broader business solution.
"What we are doing is engaging with customers around a number of different business challenges," Brown said. "They may have a mandate to reduce costs in their IT environment overall, or they are looking at a way to support mobile users. It's a conglomeration of several business challenges that are in front of them. As a result, they tend to investigate a number of solutions, and virtualization is in the forefront."
"We don't go in and just talk desktop virtualization," Rindt said. "We talk about their overall desktop strategy, which may include a BYOD initiative and/or the need for desktop virtualization."
The return of ROI
Some channel executives suggest VDI will sell today even without a mobile kicker.
"There definitely seems to be this growing notion that mobile is driving virtualization, but I don't see it as much," said Joshua Block, vice president, sales and marketing and partner alliances, at UltraLevel Inc., a desktop virtualization services provider.
Instead, Block cited the customers' need to reduce refresh cycles and to centralize desktop management as the key drivers behind his company's VDI initiatives. Desktop virtualization allows IT departments to focus on more strategic IT programs rather than supporting desktops in the field. Block said virtualization also frees up budget for data center technology refreshes.
"The more traditional reasons for moving to VDI are what's powering our business," he said.
UltraLevel offers its own prebuilt and certified desktop virtualization services that are "modular and scalable to meet any customer's requirements no matter how small or large," Block noted. The solutions are built upon Dell's latest PowerEdge 12G server platform, Dell EqualLogic and Compellent storage, and Dell Force10 Networking, which present the customer with a choice of iSCSI or Fibre Channel fabric. UltraLevel offers VDI software from all the major players, including Citrix, Microsoft and VMware with these bundles.
Improving ROI may be the reason a traditional sales approach has become more effective in winning over customers. Brown said storage acceleration technology and deduplication have reduced storage costs, and free virtualization technologies such as Microsoft's Hyper-V also contribute to more cost-effective solutions. While a two- to five-year ROI was once the norm, that span has now shrunk to 18 months to three years, he noted.
That said, channel partners should take care not to oversell ROI.
"We don't usually tell our customers looking at VDI that they are going to save money in the short run," Block said. He noted that VDI implementations typically require new infrastructure. Virtual desktop installations call for high input/output operations per second (IOPS) performance.
"Few companies sit on powerful servers and central storage that has the proper IOPS and processing power to handle a VDI implementation," Block said. As a consequence, VDI's ROI can be anywhere from two to five years, he said.
The best desktop virtualization services practice for resellers: Talk up VDI within the context of a broader solution that solves multiple business problems. Manage customer expectations regarding infrastructure needs, and reinforce the sales message with virtualization's improving ROI story.
John Moore is a Syracuse, N.Y.-based writer reachable at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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