Digging deeper into Hybrid VDI: Desktop management and device drivers

In a previous article with the help of Aaron Suzuki, CEO of Prowess Consulting and SmartDeploy we examined why Hybrid VDI provides the centralized management benefits of virtual desktop infrastructure to IT while providing the best possible experience for end users. In my interview with Aaron we talked about why managing Windows PCs can be challenging for most businesses and how a solution he calls Hybrid VDI combines the best of various traditional PC managing solutions together into a single solution that’s easier and more cost effective to manage. I wanted to dig deeper into this subject however and try to understand more about how Hybrid VDI actually works, so I asked Aaron’s colleague Erik Nymark the Director of Engineering at SmartDeploy to explain it from a more technical point of view. Erik graciously responded by providing me with the following explanation which I’m sharing here with our TechGenix readership, and I think after reading this many of you may want to look more closely at your existing end-user computing infrastructure and see whether following a hybrid approach might make more sense for your business. Because the hybrid approach described here helps address one of the main pain points of Windows client management, namely managing device drivers. And Hybrid VDI succeeds in reducing or even eliminating this pain point by providing device driver isolation strategies to simplify Windows management. And that’s what Erik will now explain for us.

Different approaches to desktop management

My colleague Aaron Suzuki explained about the value of approaching desktop management more efficiently by thinking about management of Windows, applications, drivers, and user data centrally and in logical layers. To expand on that, the first consideration is centralized driver management though a driver layer. Drivers are the glue between hardware, the operating system and software. This presents many challenges as drivers can be a source of problems when missing, out of date, or when the wrong driver for a device is installed. Generally, new PCs have frequent device driver updates, putting even more of a burden on IT teams to keep them up to date so devices run smoothly. This article will look at the prevailing techniques for managing drivers including the pros and cons of each. Management techniques that modularize drivers into a logical or physical layers offer potential efficiencies to IT.

Hardware-based management

Do you still name your images after a PC model? This is hardware-based management of drivers and as our customers constantly remind us, it continues to be a very common practice. Whether or not you actually still perform hardware-based management, this naming convention stems from that management model. When utilizing this technique, you build a reference computer on a particular device and you are assured a complete set of drivers. A key advantage is that you can review and remediate any problems on the device before capture. Once everything is setup and verified, you can confidently create an image that will work on other identical devices. This technique ensures that you know the precise configuration of the reference and provides a level of comfort that the resultant configuration is exactly the same.

Although you get a granular level of control, hardware-based management does not easily scale as you are generally creating a reference per-device. This leads to standardization on a limited number of hardware models limiting flexibility of purchasing new or differently configured devices. In addition, this is a point-in-time management scenario: drivers will become outdated requiring spare inventory to keep the reference and image up to date. This can become particularly painful to IT if, for example, your organization grows over time. Every one to two years OEMs usually stop selling the devices you are prepared to service, requiring you to build new images only because you have to buy different models of devices. Similarly, if your organization acquires or merges with other organizations, the incoming infrastructure is almost certainly going to have different devices requiring another round of hardware imaging work to integrate the new business.

Desktop virtualization

In an effort to simplify desktop management, including escaping driver management headaches, some have adopted a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). VDI relies on a connection from a thin client to a virtual machine running in a datacenter, allowing IT to offload the management and governance of the desktop to a central location. Besides the centralized management, many organizations adopt VDI for the security benefits.

Public cloud operators expand on VDI with the Hosted Virtual Desktop (HVD), which is a VDI instance running on a public cloud. HVD provides the same advantages of VDI, however HVD offloads the infrastructure requirements and extends the coverage area for thin client devices to anywhere with an internet connection. Virtual machines expose a limited and consistent hardware configuration to the operating system allowing for management of a simple driver set with little churn or updates needed. Even when updates are needed, they are centrally managed and can be applied globally to the environment.

VDI as an architecture is prone to slower performance due to the network dependency and potential latency when compared to an OS running locally. This technique also requires a significant datacenter hardware investment and ongoing server management, or, in the case of HDV, a monthly subscription fee. In addition to the datacenter and VM management, thin client devices (or classic PC workstations and laptops in many cases) used to access the remote desktop also require drivers or firmware and that of course requires management from the IT team, leading back to some of the same disadvantages of the hardware-based management model.

Hybrid VDI

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A hybrid between these two models, allowing local execution with the flexible management techniques of VDI, is hardware-independent local execution. We call this Hybrid VDI. This technique, in some form, has been around for over a decade and works by allowing modularization of the drivers into a driver layer.

Historically this has been done in one of two ways. One way requires IT to source and manage each driver set for particular devices. The other uses a very large, all-inclusive set of drivers that will "work" on most hardware models. Utilizing this technique provides for more flexibility in hardware models that can be managed by IT, opening the door for cost savings during purchasing as any model can be purchased and, optionally, allows IT to entertain bring your own device scenarios.

When the driver layer is logically and physically separated from the operating system a single operating system image can be used for any hardware model. This is also what facilitates the modularization of the operating system into its own layer. Keeping the driver layer up to date ensures that the latest and most secure drivers are used during initial setup and post setup management. Although it can be technically complex and time consuming to create a driver layer per hardware model, it is normally maintained by the Hybrid VDI vendor to eliminate this burden from the IT department in an organization. Of course, this requires that the Hybrid VDI vendor also continually update these layers as is applicable to the driver development lifecycle.

After inspecting each technique, it is clear that no process is perfect. All management scenarios will require configuration and effort from an IT team to some extent. Minimizing the time and capital investment of the IT team is the key to an advantageous approach. By implementing a hardware independent approach like a Hybrid VDI solution, organizations can achieve the exacting control of hardware-based management with the flexibility of VDI. Considering again the organic and inorganic growth models we discussed earlier, with a Hybrid VDI approach you simply swap the driver layer for the new devices using the same image without any changes. The pre-deployment effort may be as simple as a download.

Maintenance of the driver layer by the Hybrid VDI vendor also expands the ongoing updates for all devices ensuring your desktops function correctly and have the latest security patches. While the vendor bears the brunt of maintaining the drivers in the driver layer, IT teams can focus on more strategic projects whether in the desktop management area or altogether different areas of IT that are more aligned with meeting the business goals of the organization.

Featured image: Shutterstock

Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch is Senior Editor of both WServerNews and FitITproNews and is a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud technologies. He has written more than a thousand articles and has authored or been series editor for over 50 books for Microsoft Press and other publishers. Mitch has also been a twelve-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in the technical category of Cloud and Datacenter Management. He currently runs an IT content development business in Winnipeg, Canada.

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