As enterprises come to terms with the implications of the COVID-19 crisis, workforces are learning how to work remotely for extended periods of time. The natural focus has been to scale up existing virtual private network (VPN) access and the associated back-end infrastructure, typically comprising of some form of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology from vendors such as Citrix, Microsoft, HPE, VMWare and Nutanix.
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For over twenty years the argument for using VDI platforms has been that end users can securely access the same desktop experience from any device, from any location. This has been a key driver for the adoption of workforce strategy initiatives and has led to a surge in hot-desking and flexible working, thereby supporting the twin goals of reducing companies’ real estate costs whilst offering employees the work/life balance of being able to access their applications and data even when physically away from the office. This may be about to change.
Since 2011, PC & laptop sales have slumped, both for consumer and corporate devices. Additional formats such as tablets and smartphones have provided new ways of accessing content, whereas for corporates, deploying thin-client terminals has been the default for most day-to-day use cases as they look to lower the support costs of end user technology. However, in 2019 we saw an increase in sales of PCs and laptops for the first time in seven years. Much of this can be put down to the pent-up demand of Windows 10 upgrades, with the increased technology footprint required to support the features of the newer Operating System. But it’s possible there are other factors as play – even before we consider the impact that COVID-19 could play on the working practices of corporate workers.
The logical argument for a VDI solution is that the technology department can create and maintain a desktop environment in a controlled, well-managed setting using cheap, easily managed thin client terminal devices. A corporate laptop was always seen as difficult to manage, support and maintain, with a lifespan of maybe only two years before needing to be replaced. Additionally, the lack of consistent connectivity, power and peripherals from laptop manufacturers made it difficult to offer any form of roaming experience for users who needed to work from different locations around the campus. Thin-client devices are regarded as cheaper and longer lasting and for the occasional “work from home” access, the VDI solution has the added benefit of being accessible from the user’s own device under a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) offering. Being able to manage company data and applications centrally on-premise and only sending screen updates to the end user device made it a logical way of securing company assets whilst enabling access from outside the organisation on an ad-hoc basis and provided a consistent user experience while they wandered from desk to desk inside the corporate environment.
So, what’s changed?
Many organisations are starting to challenge the received wisdom that “more VDI” and “less fat client” is an inevitable direction of travel. Factors influencing this debate include:
The ongoing cost of VDI
Replacing and maintaining an on-premise VDI infrastructure isn’t cheap. For large enterprises the data centre hardware alone will be a seven-figure investment, on top of the hosting and operating costs. Most enterprise data centres were designed more than a decade ago, without the power density capability required to host modern power-hungry VDI hardware in an optimal configuration. This leads to half empty cabinets and a business case in tatters. Additionally, the cost of the thin clients is non-trivial, with many terminal devices costing nearly as much as some mid-range laptops. Coupled with the fact that for some use cases it’s necessary to provide a corporate laptop (with another OS), and most likely another VDI for disaster recovery purposes, questions about the financial viability of a VDI setup start to be raised. At a time when many enterprises are attempting to offload their corporate datacentre assets, there’s a strong argument to suggest that providing end users with a corporate laptop device is more cost efficient than the significant ongoing investment required in VDI infrastructure.
Real-time collaboration challenges
Video conferencing and other real-time collaboration software can often require some fairly computationally intensive video processing, as well as a consistent, reliable audio stream that does not jitter or drop. Many thin-client devices do not have the local processing capabilities to offload that functionality and also the shared nature of the back-end infrastructure is not ideal for guaranteeing a seamless user experience. Products such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom are not always certified to work on these devices and running video and streaming software locally on a PC or laptop is still seen as the more reliable and performant way for end users to collaborate with their peers.
A consistent experience, online and offline
Users want a seamless experience, switching between work settings. Online in the office they want to be able to roam between a desk and a meeting room, or into a shared area where no other technology may be present. They may want to be in “3rd place” anchor settings such as a coffee shop on a public wifi, or at home with an intermittent broadband connection. They may be offline, travelling without any network connection, when VDI just doesn’t work. Being able to instantly switch between location and connectivity scenarios is really only feasible with a full featured end user device which can be taken with a user everywhere they go and be set to sync local copies of data securely when a network is not available.
Public Cloud adoption
Most organisations are migrating applications and data to public cloud providers such as Azure, AWS and Google. This is true both for business applications but also for standard productivity tools such as Office 365. If the user’s applications and data are held in the cloud (but can be accessed locally or sync a local copy) then it becomes increasingly unattractive to force the user through a VPN tunnel to an on-premise solution, only then to be routed back out to the cloud service provider and all the way back again. As the balance begins to shift between what is running on-prem vs. what is in the cloud, more companies will take the opportunity to move away from a VDI solution.
Security and management tool maturity
One of the main objections to the use of laptops has historically been the lack of security and management tools, with the concern being that laptops could be used to access applications and store data which should not leave the corporate environment. These challenges are rapidly being overcome, with current management tools such as Microsoft EMS allowing fine grained access controls, conditional access and user behaviour monitoring to name a few examples.
Consistent standards for peripherals and docking
With more laptop manufacturers converging on the USB-C standard for peripherals and power, it’s feasible for every desk to be equipped with a standard docking bar to support power, mouse, keyboard and other required peripherals. Along with the ubiquity of Bluetooth for wireless connectivity, this facilitates the ease of hot-desking which has been one of the selling points of the VDI movement to date.
Some of the disadvantages of VDI are being addressed by the growing availability of Desktop-as-a-Service offerings; without the significant up-front Capex cost of investing in VDI infrastructure, moving the desktop session away from on-prem solutions could be a valid use case for many organisations. Similarly, not every downside of a “laptop first” strategy can be addressed (for example, not every user wants to be carrying a laptop to every meeting room and home every night). But, with many firms now considering a post-COVID-19 world where the standard working practice may have fundamentally moved away from an “office first” location strategy, the question will continue to be asked – has the laptop’s time returned?