Virtual Desktop Infrastructure: Are We There Yet?
For Stephen Herzig, director of enterprise systems at the University of Arkansas, the virtual — rather than physical — desktop is the wave of the future. Finally, these thin-client-heavy-server installations are easy to stand up, cheap to run, and involve nary a sacrifice in expense or performance. His shop is running around 700 thin clients now and has plans to roll out thousands more as budget and institutional inertia permit. Ultimately, he expects to be able to deliver 5,000 concurrent compute sessions to 27,000 students and 5,000 faculty (typically, not everyone is on at the same time, and because the assets are shared, a one-to-one ratio of users to systems isn’t required). While many of these sessions will end up on thin clients, they will also be delivered via application to PCs, tablets, and phones.
His enthusiasm for this architecture is a notable departure from the general disapproval it has drawn from the IT community in the past.
Until recently Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) got no respect. VDI — a theoretically simpler, less-expensive way to supply desktop functionality from a central location through terminal-like thin clients — has been around for years and has been oft maligned for its lack of standardized features, needless complexity, poor performance, and surprisingly high costs.
Says Herzig, “VDI has finally come of age. I’ve been doing this for 30 years. Even three years ago, it was still kind of buggy.”
At Dell Technologies World in Las Vegas earlier this month, Dell put the VDI discussion to rest with announcements in both the thin-client and virtualization-infrastructure areas. The company brought out the Dell Wyse 5070 — a versatile, configurable, low-cost thin client — and updated its Dell EMC VDI Complete Solutions — the back-end piece of VDI, including enhanced deployment options.
One of the chief complaints about VDI in the past has been that it’s not PC architecture. IT managers, loathe to deploy additional images with distinct software loads and hardware unlike anything else, have shied away from non-standard configurations. In today’s virtualized world, many of those distinctions have melted away, but the most important hardware advance in this announcement is the Wyse 5070, which covers the gamut of performance from top to bottom and can be deployed as the sole endpoint type. This one piece of hardware offers more than 16,000 configurations. Thus, an organization with 5,000 call-facility workers, 10,000 knowledge workers, and 3,000 engineers, can role out a few thousand of these babies and be done with it.
On the software and deployment side, a lot of the firepower for the back end comes from VMware, with the Dell Infrastructure Group (composed mostly of former EMC assets and the Dell server business) providing hyperconverged hardware (software-defined mix and match compute, storage, and networking).
The three knocks against VDI up through now have been complexity, cost, and performance. All have been issues limiting VDI’s obvious potential.
On the performance side, a thin client that essentially trades keystrokes up for pixels down — with all the computing done as a cloud service — has fallen woefully behind when dealing with high-end graphics data, like video rendering and 3D modeling. At one time, the tech industry mitigated this experience by having specialized chips that did complex graphics calculations and then data compression on the results before transmitting them; the other end reinflated the processed data in hardware and delivered the reconstituted pixels to the screen. Another workaround to graphics gnarliness was software compression, favored, for example by Hewlett-Packard. But performance remained an issue.
These days, off-the-shelf performance graphics hardware — paired with central compute capability for each and every session, along with faster networking that removes communications latency — has made VDI performance a non-issue. U. of Arkansas’s Herzig says he serves up CAD/CAM sessions just as easily as standard Windows 10 experiences with all the graphics effects turned up.
Cost is addressed by the new Wyse 5070, which starts at $450. While it is possible to find PCs for less, many of them will be less capable. In the right configurations, for example, a single 5070 supports 4K resolution on multiple monitors, up to six monitors in total (not all of them 4K at once), and a variety of I/O, memory, and local graphics options.
While performance has limited VDI to mostly task and some office workers, and cost has been an adoption inhibitor, complexity has been the deal killer until now. IT managers used to managing PCs, notebooks, and x86 servers could not for the life of them put together a solution that worked and was easily and inexpensively maintained. This is where VDI Complete comes in.
In addition to the Wyse thin client, VDI Complete it built on the latest generation Dell EMC PowerEdge servers with Dell EMC VxRail and vSAN Ready Nodes, NVIDIA Quadro virtual Data Center Workstation (Quadro vDWS) software, and NVIDIA Tesla P40 graphics processing units for workstation-class workloads.
With VDI Complete, the whole system can be configured at the factory and set right up out of the box. Dell can validate all the configurations and handle all the maintenance. Thus, whatever complexity there is is hidden from the buyer.
And during a transition period during which thin clients are mixed with traditional endpoints, including Apple Macintosh machines, VDI sessions can be served up three ways: via VMware Horizon Clients (software that connects Windows, Linux, iOS, Mac OS X, Google Android, or Chrome OS endpoints to Horizon View virtual desktops and applications), a VMware Workspace ONE portal (middleware that sets up connections between identity, storage, and application services), or by a VMware service that turns a Mac or outdated PC into a thin client.
At this point, it’s safe to say that VDI is ready for prime time. Herzig’s enthusiastic embrace of thin clients and Dell’s VDI Complete heralds a new era, when VDI will sit alongside traditional PC architecture as a full equal. The former inhibitors of cost, complexity, and performance have finally been addressed.