By Doug Lowe

The term desktop virtualization refers to any software that separates an end-user’s Windows desktop environment from the hardware that the environment runs on. Desktop virtualization is meant to address some of the fundamental weaknesses of the traditional practice of giving each user his or her own Windows workstation.

Here are just a few of the problems that desktop virtualization addresses:

  • Windows workstations must be configured individually for each user. If your organization has 100 workstations and you decide to update your accounting software, you have to figure out how to deploy the update to 100 computers.

  • Windows software frequently needs to be updated. Updates are normally delivered via Windows Update. However, deploying Windows updates separately to all your desktop computers is fraught with peril. A particular Windows update might work well on 99 percent of all computers, which means that if your organization has 100 computers, that update is likely to not work on at least one of them. That means a trip to that computer to diagnose the problem caused by the update and get the user back up and running.

  • If a user’s computer fails, that computer must be replaced. To replace the computer, you’ll need to rebuild the user’s profile, reinstall the user’s applications, and perform other configuration work to restore the user’s desktop environment.

  • Windows computers have a dreaded thing called the C: drive. Any data stored on the C: drive belongs to that computer alone and is not easily backed up to the network. Thus, if the user’s C: drive dies, its data is likely to die with it.

  • If a user moves to another desk or office, the user must take her computer with her.

  • If a user wants to work from home, the user can’t easily access her desktop environment from her home computer. There are solutions for this problem, such as remote access software like GoToMyPC, but those solutions introduce problems of their own.

  • If a user has a laptop computer in addition to a desktop computer, the user must make a special effort to ensure that the data on the desktop computer is synchronized with the data on the laptop.

  • The user may have devices with different platforms than his or her desktop computer. For example, a user might have a Windows computer at work, a MacBook Pro at home, and an Apple iPad for the road. These platforms aren’t compatible with one another, so the user can’t run the same software on all three.

Desktop virtualization addresses all these problems (and more) by moving the user’s desktop environment from a desktop computer to a central host computer. Then the user can access the desktop environment from any device that is compatible with the VDI technology chosen to virtualize the desktop. The advantages of this arrangement are many:

  • If the user’s computer dies, the user’s desktop does not die with it. You can replace the failed computer with any other computer and simply reconnect to the virtual desktop.

  • Operating systems and application software can be centrally managed. There is no need to visit a user’s desk to install or update software.

  • The user’s desktop can be accessed from different types of devices. So, a user can access his or her desktop from a Windows computer, a MacBook, an iPad, an Android table, or even from an iPhone or Android phone.

  • You can use thin clients at users’ desks rather than full-blown Windows computers. A thin client is a small computer that has just enough processing power (CPU, RAM, and disk) to run the client piece of the desktop virtualization platform. Typically, the thin client runs an embedded version of Linux that is specially configured to run the client software that accesses the virtual desktop. In most cases, the end-user is not even aware that this is happening — to the user, the experience is identical to having a standard Windows computer at his or her desk.

  • In some desktop virtualization environments, multiple users share a common Windows environment, which means that an application needs to be installed only once for it to be available for multiple users, and operating system patches need to be applied just once rather than to multiple computers.

  • All data is kept on the host computers, which means the data can be centrally managed and backed up.