Before personal computers were made popular in the 1980’s, computing usually involved large, expensive ‘mainframe’ computers with a multitude of terminals for operators who performed various tasks. Mainframes were expense to purchase and were seen in large facilities with full time technical staff to perform maintenance and routines. The personal computer allowed individuals and businesses to utilize many of the benefits of a computer without the high initial cost and overheads of a mainframe. As time progressed, this desktop computer was adopted into many departments and the need to share information evolved into complex networks of computers and servers to host services that can be shared across the entire organization. The latest advances in technology have brought us right back to the start again, with the development of Virtual Desktop Infrastructure.
Virtual desktops are like any other workstation that you are familiar with the exception that they do not exist in the physical world. Virtual desktops are created on a server either at your business or at a hosting site somewhere in the world. You can access a virtual desktop from your mobile device, a special terminal called a ‘thin client’, or a personal computer. Virtual desktops increase mobility and also provide a stable platform in a controlled environment. Why would you access a virtual desktop from a personal computer?
- Existing workstations are often utilized as ‘terminals’ to the virtual environment.
- Local workstations can act as a backup to the virtual environment should the system fail.
- Virtualization has increased reliability over a traditional network.
Thin clients are special devices that look very much like a computer, except they are much smaller. They have ports to plug in a network cable, keyboard, mouse and even USB devices like printers. A good thin client can run for $300 and up, but have no local storage or ability to work independently. Thin clients are regarded as having a much longer life than computers, and are better able to handle harsh environments.
Virtual desktops have a much longer life span because they are separated from the physical layer. You are limited by the capacity of the server you put in place. Virtual desktops are not much different than a regular computer and can run everything from Windows XP to Windows 8.1. Virtual desktops are similar to regular computers in the fact that they can have all the same problems you would have on a regular desktop computer, but recovery times are much shorter since virtual desktops can take minutes to recreate.
A small office of 10 workstations might cost anywhere from $8,000 to $12,000 to setup. A virtual environment of similar size is going to cost 25% to 50% more than this but the virtual environment is more stable, has lower maintenance costs and provides access for a mobile workforce. Virtualization is dropping in cost all the time as demand increases. Vendors are also starting to provide workstation access as a service from central ‘cloud’ based centres allowing companies to expand without investing in infrastructure.
Receptionist phones in sick? Someone from accounting moves to the reception desk to cover but is still able to perform many of their tasks. Have the flu but can’t afford to get behind? Stay at home, remote from your mobile device or home computer. Virtual Desktops may not be a solution for every business but there are more and more organizations starting to evaluate and consider this technology.