What in the world is hybrid VDI? And is it right for you?

As IT professionals most of us are familiar with the benefits and approaches to implementing virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) solutions. For those who aren’t familiar with VDI here is a brief edited excerpt from one of my earlier Microsoft Press free ebooks Introducing Windows Server 2012 which is still pretty much true as far as on-premises in-box VDI solutions based on the Windows Server platform are concerned:

Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is an emerging alternative to the traditional PC-based desktop computing paradigm. With the VDI approach, users access secure, centrally managed virtual desktops running on virtualization hosts located in the datacenter. Instead of having a standard PC to work with, VDI users typically have less costly thin clients that have no hard drive and only minimal processing power.

A typical environment where the VDI approach can provide benefits might be a call center where users work in shifts using a shared pool of client devices. In such a scenario, VDI can provide greater flexibility, more security, and lower hardware costs than providing each user with his or her own PC. The VDI approach can also bring benefits to organizations that frequently work with contractors because it eliminates the need to provide contractors with PCs and helps ensure that corporate intellectual property remains safely in the datacenter. A help desk also benefits from the VDI approach because it’s easier to reinitialize failed virtual machines remotely than with standard PCs.

This much should be common knowledge for most of us in the IT profession. But what on earth is this relatively new thing called Hybrid VDI? To answer that question I recently had a conversation with Aaron Suzuki, CEO of Prowess Consulting and SmartDeploy. Aaron is an interesting guy who has spent his entire career as an IT consultant. Rising at the age of 26 to the role of president for a regional Internet application development firm, Aaron led the company successfully through the economic downturn of the early 2000’s. From there, he moved to a broader technology business opportunity, taking on the revival of a Seattle-based IT firm where he acted as the director of business development. Aaron co-founded Prowess in 2003 and co-founded SmartDeploy in 2009. The following is a distillation of my exchange with Aaron on the subject of Hybrid VDI.

MITCH: So Aaron, is the personal computer soon going to go the way of the dinosaurs?

Aaron Suzuki. Credit: Prowess Consulting

AARON: PCs are here to stay. There were all sorts of predictions about the post-PC era where tablets, smartphones, Chromebooks, Macs, on-premises VDI, and cloud VDI eliminated the need for PC. That did not happen. In fact, according to Gartner and IDC, sales of PCs to businesses are growing. You certainly see all the various devices, software, and services being used and each has its place, but businesses are clearly committed to using PCs. We’ve really entered into the PC-plus era, not a post-PC era.

MITCH: But PCs are still difficult for businesses to manage, right? I mean it’s painful sometimes to try and manage a bunch of PCs your employees need to do their work.

AARON: That’s right, Windows is not becoming any easier to manage. In fact, the addition of other devices and services combined with evolving work styles is making Windows management even more painful. Whether imaging, patching, updating, migrating, refreshing, repairing, or recovering, PC management now needs to account for an ever-increasing remote workforce that can be located in remote offices, home offices, or even hotel rooms — on and off the corporate network using wired or wireless connections. Now add application deployment, updating, and patching into the mix, and it becomes that much more difficult.

MITCH: What’s the best way for businesses to deal with such pain?

AARON: There are many ways to tackle all the various Windows management scenarios. We have identified three prevailing PC management models:

Model #1: Point solutions

One way is to use point solutions for each of these use cases. That means a different tool for each job (including imaging software, patching tools, application deployment software, etc.). Not only is it difficult to learn and stay up to date on many different tools, some of these tools can be unreliable and frustrating to use. For example, many imaging solutions are slow and you must create and maintain a separate image for each computer model you support or write and run custom scripts after deploying the baseline image.

Model #2: Platform solutions

Another way is to use a comprehensive package or platform solution that can accomplish most or all of these management scenarios. These comprehensive IT management solutions can require significant training and technical experience to evaluate, configure, and maintain. For most companies, several specialized technicians are required to utilize the full suite of capabilities. These big team demands can make tackling strategic IT initiatives difficult since the most experienced IT staff are running these day-to-day management solutions.

Model #3: Platform solutions

A third option is to use on-premises or cloud VDI. VDI, when properly deployed, takes a different approach to endpoint management. Instead of managing thousands of endpoints independently, VDI provides single-image management of a centralized golden image of an operating system and each application. While this can simplify most or all of PC management use cases, the challenge with VDI is that images run on a server in a datacenter instead of on the user’s endpoint. In many cases, this leads to end user frustration and dissatisfaction, and reduced productivity because of the reduced performance compared to a “real” PC. Additionally, on-premises VDI is complicated and expensive to implement. Cloud VDI is relatively simple to implement, but the recurring monthly cost adds up quickly.

MITCH: And then there’s the Hybrid VDI approach, right?

AARON: Yes, let me introduce that approach next:

Model #4: Hybrid VDI

An ideal solution would take the best of the three prevailing approaches and weave them into one: a centralized, layered, single-image management like VDI, but where the image runs locally on the endpoint with low implementation cost, fast planning, and setup as well as operated by any IT skillset. We define this as Hybrid VDI.

Hybrid VDI is essentially VDI-like layered, single-image management combined with local execution of the image on the endpoint. It provides the centralized management benefits of virtual desktop infrastructure to IT while still providing the best possible experience for end users. Hybrid VDI decouples monolithic PC images into separate driver layers, operating system layers, application layers and user data layers that can all be deployed, upgraded, and managed independently from each other.

MITCH: Why is that good?

AARON: This layered approach to PC management significantly simplifies administration. IT now manages just one golden image of Windows and applications instead of managing thousands of individual endpoints in your fleet of PCs — regardless of PC make or model. However, unlike VDI, end users take advantage of all the local computing power of an endpoint, including high-end processors and on-board graphics processing, and they can work even when they are not connected to any network. It eliminates the struggle between endpoint management simplicity and end user experience.

MITCH: So this should also help with things like redeployment and patch management I would expect.

AARON: Yes. Whether using the centralized, single-image management of Hybrid VDI for Windows migration, Windows updates, computer imaging, PC refresh, or even PC break-fix, the ability to reimage the operating system layer is faster and simpler than managing thousands of Windows images independently. Endpoint management is also simplified with centralized, single-image management of Windows OS and applications regardless of where users are located or how they are connected. End users are happier because they can take advantage of all the power of their endpoint even if they are in an airplane with no internet access or using applications that require high-end graphics processing.

MITCH: Where would you expect this Hybrid VDI approach to bring benefit?

AARON: I’ll identify four industry areas:

Industries

Hybrid VDI is ideal for organizations that have deployed VDI but have users that need high performance or need to work offline. Hybrid VDI is also a natural fit in a number of industries that may be stuck in one of the other prevailing models.

Education

With limited IT staff covering all areas of IT, both K-12 and higher education institutions have a need for a simple solution that provides the full range of endpoint management functionality from imaging to Windows 10 migrations to application deployment. Colleges and universities also have specific imaging requirements around refreshing computer labs. Specifically, lab computer images need to be updated and deployed periodically and once the image is set, lab computers may need to be automatically reimaged nightly. Hybrid VDI enables centralized single image management of a Windows golden image across the faculty, staff, and labs, but also deploy applications that are specific to these computers. The ability to run the image locally on the PC is vital since many labs leverage advanced, CPU- and GPU-intensive applications like CAD, BIM, etc.

Architectural and engineering

Architectural and engineering firms typically have many remote offices, both through organic growth and acquisitions of other firms. These firms also utilize CPU and GPU intensive applications like CAD and BIM on a daily basis. Hybrid VDI enables centralized IT in these organizations to service employees in remote offices like the employees where in the local office, but also make sure that the employees can take advantage of CPU and GPU processing on the employee’s PCs.

Manufacturing

Manufacturing companies are similar to Architectural and Engineering firms in that they utilize CPU and GPU intensive applications. However, manufacturing companies can be different than architectural and engineering firms as remote offices might be in other parts of the world where the manufacturing is completed. While remote offices across the world might pose an end-user performance challenge for VDI, there is no difference with Hybrid VDI if the end user is local or 6,000 miles away.

MITCH: That sounds pretty good! So I guess the Hybrid VDI approach is going to appeal to a lot of different companies and organizations.

AARON: Definitely! With PCs here to stay and IT teams at most organizations being asked to do more with less, there needs to be a better way of handling the overhead of all the desktop management tasks. IT needs to focus on projects that are more strategic to the organization. Hybrid VDI achieves this through centralized, single image management that simplifies IT’s desktop management duties while providing employees with the best possible user experience.

MITCH: Terrific, thanks Aaron for helping us understand the nature and benefit of this approach.

AARON: You’re welcome!

Featured image: Shutterstock

Mitch Tulloch

Mitch Tulloch is a widely recognized expert on Windows Server and cloud technologies who has written more than a thousand articles and has authored or been series editor for over 50 books for Microsoft Press. He is a twelve-time recipient of the Microsoft Most Valuable Professional (MVP) award in the technical category of Cloud and Datacenter Management.

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