As desktop computing becomes more software-defined, new tools and capabilities are needed within the tech team. We spoke to Tyler Rohrer, co-founder of Liquidware Labs, to find out how businesses are moving from PCs to workspaces to exploit new cloud, virtual and web-application models.
Rohrer's thoughts and answers will also provide insight for tech pros who are looking to evolve their internal services, boost security and control over desktops, and use new technologies in the most cost-effective way.
TechRadar Pro: There has been a lot of discussion about software-defined networking and the software-defined datacentre, but what exactly is the definition of a software-defined workspace?
Tyler Rohrer: For decades desktop innovations have happened inside of the hardware device. We've seen increasingly faster and cheaper chips, more sophisticated architectures, and the addition of touchscreen and other interactive technologies. While this has made end-user devices indispensable to users, the proliferation of devices has resulted in significant challenges when it comes to managing end-user environments.
This includes controlling how application and internal systems are accessed depending on where, how and when users try to log in. It also includes the growing worry that hackers will exploit weak spots via user systems to gain a portal into the enterprise. And as more and more staff become mobile, it has become more difficult for administrators to ensure users have a consistent desktop user experience at a level that maintains their productivity.
In order to develop a response to these issues, administrators are turning to "virtualising" the components that traditionally have been "inside" of end-user devices and maintaining these components as discrete assets inside secured repositories in the datacentre.
These assets include all user profiles, settings, and user-authored data, as well as applications, applications data and application configuration. This allows the administrator to reduce the requirements of the end-user devices to only the OS and basic hardware resources (CPU, memory, graphics, network), essentially leveraging thin or zero client devices to perform work.
However, this approach puts much more emphasis on the software architecture of these desktop systems, hence the term "software-defined workspace." The software-defined workspace typically incorporates technologies such as user virtualisation (also called user profile and user environment management), application virtualisation, remote hosted application delivery and application layering.
TRP: When we think about new desktop models, we tend to think of VDI or the new types of cloud-based desktops coming to market. There hasn't been an overnight switch to these models despite their OPEX benefits – why is that?
TR: These technologies have certainly been responsible for ushering in a new mind-set around end-user computing. In the enterprise space, change can take time and whilst there hasn't been a wholesale move to VDI for all organisations, what we are seeing is increasing adoption and an evolution that is well underway.
There are a number of factors coming together to make virtual desktop environments possible for more organisations – for example new solutions that optimise infrastructure such as storage in a virtual environment, and those that enable bandwidth intensive applications such as medical images to run really smoothly over virtual sessions, along with a wider market acceptance of the cloud model.
What is interesting is that increasingly enterprise client devices are thin clients (thin client devices or PCs used as thin clients) so the move away from the PC device-centric view of desktop computing is definitely a mainstream movement. Microsoft's decision later on last year to offer new user-based Windows licensing models, and not just device-based licenses is testament to this.
TRP: So focusing on the PC versus VDI battle is wrong, as actually many organisations are already basing their client computing estates on being able to use multiple types of platforms and delivery options?
TR: Exactly. In recent years, there have been a number of things that have forced organisations to think differently about their service delivery – staff mobility, the rise of personal devices, the need to use physical spaces more efficiently – so application streaming and hosting offered a way to address those challenges.
What we see now are more, not less, flavours of application models and a realisation that actually we have to be ready to accept the possibility of new devices coming to the fore and different demands from users over the coming years. The desktop environment has to be portable and easy to change, like any other part of the stack has to be.
TRP: What other things do you see coming into the client computing space that tech pros should think about?
TR: There are a few things really. The new style of desktop workspace requires different tools and management processes to be in place at each stage of the lifecycle – from early planning and assessment through to monitoring and issue remediation.
Persona and user environment management solutions are essential for giving tech pros the ability to design, deploy and manage these environments successfully and cost-effectively.
You also need to have visibility across the application landscape. If you're running different platforms and types of application models this is critical. For example, browser-based applications are becoming more widely used, and a tech pro should have the ability to see what the application within the browser is – whether it's Salesforce or Facebook. I also think the ability to be able to manage different components of the desktop centrally will become even more important as organisations adopt digital business models.
The convergence that is happening at the datacentre is extending down to the endpoint. As desktop environments become more software-defined, IT will need to have the capability to monitor service delivery from the endpoint all the way back to the shared subsystems that are supported such as virtual hosts, network and storage infrastructure.
TRP: Is the move towards software-defined adding more complexity to the enterprise environment?
TR: It seems complex because it is a new way of thinking about IT. But the fact is essentially you are trading desktop sprawl, which has its own inherent problems and complexities, for a more streamlined and structured approach which is much more scalable, secure and flexible. It also gives the ability to tailor the correct delivery model to the user's specific needs, which is more efficient.
The software-defined workspace, for example, allows administrators to have almost granular ability to lock down specific components of the desktop, take away admin status from basic end users and allow them only to "touch" the parts that they need for work.
In addition, because OS and applications are centrally managed, critical patches and updates are applied in a timely fashion, and the number of rogue or unlicensed applications is reduced or completely eliminated, therefore providing essential vigilance against intrusions.
Companies can't afford for their technology to keep them shackled. We see this with legacy PC environments, where boot times are slow, upgrades are lengthy and expensive to conduct and the lifecycle doesn't accommodate change very easily.
Using user profile and user environment management solutions with virtual, physical and cloud applications and desktops gives organisations an incredible amount of freedom and value to start managing their client environments in a much more flexible way.
One organisation that we worked with, an NHS trust, was able to transform their clinical environment by taking a new approach to their desktop strategy, enabling consultants to log on to applications quickly and manage security and application rights from their datacentre. They reduced logon times from 10 minutes to seconds and are able to progress their goal to be data-driven.
Another thing to bear in mind is that we are now seeing more and more service providers that are able to take the back-end infrastructure piece away so that enterprises can completely focus their attention on service delivery requirements.
TRP: Will desktop teams need different skills as a result?
TR: The biggest transition will be to change the mind-set of desktop administrators and organisations from a decades-old approach of just adding more desktop devices to solve the problem. The good news though is that the software-defined desktop model has matured greatly in the past few years, and has been tested in a variety of real-world environments.
Therefore, a great body of expertise in architecting such systems has evolved in the past five years, and is completely accessible to new adopters of this technology. There are plenty of specialists, information and training resources available to help teams build new skills for a new era. There are also plenty of case studies and organisational experts who are happy to share their experience.
Gaining a new mind-set to service delivery will also enable the IT team to deliver more value to their businesses. One thing that the move towards software-defined is bringing is more of a focus on service delivery versus maintenance of kit. This in turn enables IT to have the ability to spend more time on gathering the metrics and hard data on technology usage that will make future investment decisions easier to justify and make.
Having data on usage patterns, which is enabled by new desktop management solutions, is also important for business strategy decisions so again IT has the potential to play an earlier and bigger role in organisational planning. An interesting area for IT teams will be the ability to measure the cost and business value of services at a really granular level as they understand more about how their technology is really being used.
TRP: There's often a lot of hype around new technologies and new approaches. What is the reality of working in this way – can you share any examples of what companies can achieve?
TR: There are plenty of examples of the benefits that are being realised. In fact, there are a few things that serve as a good checklist for teams that are currently looking at their desktop strategies. Organisations that we work with, for example, have been able to keep accurate inventories of applications – both used and unused – operating systems and versions really easily, which saves money on licensing and storage and ensures everything is compliant.
Where desktop upgrades used to take months they can now take days or even hours as you will only need to update a few base images, recompose them and deliver to users. You can also be absolutely sure that OS patches and upgrades are applied to all – even remote – desktops, eliminating gaps that can open up endpoints to hackers.
Migrations can be automated and performed securely at least three times faster than using tools like USMT, and users can still work on desktops the entire time. User profiles can be centrally stored in secure data centres and can be replicated and mirrored, keeping them secure and available for disaster recovery scenarios. Documented DR tests have supported a recovery time of as little as four hours to bring desktops back online.
Also, if a desktop connection is lost, data is not lost, and the session is retained; users log back in and stay productive. Desktop performance can be proactively monitored across the enterprise (meaning all desktops everywhere, anytime, even remote or field operations) to prevent issues from occurring and to ensure users stay productive. With a well-managed software-defined workspace it's common to see a reduction in help desk calls by 70 to 80% or more.
TRP: What would be your advice to desktop teams looking at their next steps?
TR: Technologies in the client computing space are evolving quickly. There are so many vendors, large and small, that are collectively reshaping what is possible. In the last year we've seen Amazon enter with cloud-based desktops, Citrix and VMware continue to drive innovation and there is now a new vision from Microsoft. The ideal goal for an organisation is to create an IT environment that is as open and as flexible as possible, that can balance security requirements with the ability to change the environment quickly.
I would recommend speaking to a specialist who has an understanding of 'persona and user environment management' as this is a critical component of being able to plan and manage a blended client computing environment. It can also solve many of the headaches of managing a traditional desktop estate so there's nothing to lose by looking at these solutions today.
Specialists with this knowledge should also be able to provide advice on the different delivery options that are suited to your organisation.