As CEO of Molten Technologies, an independent virtual desktop specialist, I often find myself enthusing about VDI, especially as a service, vs the traditional fat-client PC model and I have heard every push-back in the business (and some that ought not to be). In this series of articles, I will expose the most common and a few of my favourite rarer ones.
Traditionally VDI has been expensive to set up and there remains a tendency to compare the cost of a big pile of laptops with the cost of a virtual desktop infrastructure. As we all know, the PC market has become highly commoditised and the price of laptops, particularly notebooks, on the high street has dropped like the proverbial stone. So what does the comparison look like today and is it a fair one?
Let’s start with what the comparison looks like today, before diving back in to the thrashing waters of debate about total cost of ownership and whether virtual desktops are cheaper to run than physical ones. Molten Technologies regularly responds to tenders for virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) and builds bespoke VDI infrastructure for our clients, so we have an extremely up-to-date view of what it costs to build such infrastructure (because otherwise we would lose a lot of business or money).
For example, we recently quoted a client for a 2000 seat VDI infrastructure build, including data centre hardware, server and build effort at £620k. This was for “true” VDI with a dedicated virtual machine for each user, so not terminal services or application virtualisation, but the full-fat stuff. This equates to £310 per “bare metal” machine (I.E. without OS and application licensing). In comparison to the typical corporate laptop, this is clearly cheaper and was a big part of the business case for this client to provide virtual desktops for its contractors rather than physical ones. In this case, there were no thin client devices to buy, because the client expects the contractors to bring their own devices and has the virtual desktops locked down to prevent access to local drives and peripherals (other than keyboard and mouse), cut and paste functionality as well as second factor authentication to guard against key loggers on the unmanaged devices.
You may argue that we should include thin clients for a fairer comparison, but frankly even if you add £150 (real figure from a recent client project) you get a combined up-front cost of £460. This is still competitive with what most corporates pay for their fat-client machines.
So is VDI “too expensive” to buy? Only if you are doing it wrong, is my conclusion. Sure, you can buy a fat-client for less than £460 on the high-street, but you are likely to spend more if you are getting the sort of processing power that most corporates require.
What about too expensive to run? Surely a virtual infrastructure costs more in licensing, networking and general hassle. Well, there are some swings and roundabouts and the comparison between them will vary depending on the user group and the organisation in question, but in general our experience is that virtual desktops ought to be cheaper to run than physical ones.
Areas of run-cost increase include:-
- Virtualisation licensing (these costs can vary dramatically, so it is worth seeking out the best solution for your situation rather than defaulting to the same organisation you used for server virtualisation just because your IT team know them. You can smile about this one, but it happens quite a lot).
- Increased Operating System and Application licensing (this is usually code for Microsoft being confusing and even down-right unhelpful if you want to run your MS software in a virtual environment. The rule of thumb is that if you have software assurance you are OK, otherwise they will find a way to tax you).
- Network availability (virtual desktops typically require less bandwidth than fat-clients, but are more reliant on the network, so there may be some remediation in terms of reliability of the network)
- Support for your virtual desktop infrastructure (in the same client quote mentioned above, the VDI support cost was £36 per user per year. This buys you the virtual equivalent of PC hardware support as it is in your dreams, that is 99.9% available with a hot standby to ensure that figure if there is a hardware failure).
Areas of cost-reduction include:-
- Provisioning effort is dramatically reduced as there is no physical machine to roll-out and hand-over to the user. The provisioning process is now simple matter of using an online toolset to create a fresh desktop from one of your existing gold patterns, and emailing the details to the user or their team leader.
- Decommissioning is now a relatively simple button-push process rather than a very hit and miss physical collection (especially if we are talking about contractors).
- At elbow support and repair of damaged devices can be reduced by having some spares in each office and an understanding in the users or managers that they simply swap out the device if there is a problem. The thin-clients are not personalised, so any one will work just as well as another for each user, without the need to copy any settings, applications or files. At elbow support can be reduced to zero if the user groups is contractors who are required to bring their own PCs because they remain responsible for their hardware.
- Help desk support is typically reduced for a good VDI installation. This is a hotly debated topic and there are those with a different point of view, but our experience is that Windows simply runs more reliably on a hypervisor than it does on PC hardware. I am not absolutely certain why this is, but it seems likely that all the “helpful” add-ons and functions that the hardware manufacturers provide to differentiate their products affect stability and so do some of the functions associated with the hardware form-factor (e.g. hibernation on a laptop). Whatever the cause, the facts from the field suggest that Windows and applications running under Windows give rise to fewer helpdesk calls by about 40%.
Consideration of the expense of virtual desktops would not be complete without a mention of “cloud” desktops or hosted virtual desktops which offer a rental-style model, increasing operational cost but minimising capital expenditure to very small numbers indeed. This can offer a lower barrier to entry and greater flexibility and is a service that Molten Technologies offers (so I know a fair bit about that model too). This model is worth considering and will certainly offer a cheaper solution at lower volumes. Our website proudly offers a virtual hosted desktop for £1 per day, which is a very good deal between twenty and two hundred desktops, but when you get into the thousands, you should be looking for a discount on that in order for it compete with the sorts of numbers I have talked about above.
I would always recommend a full cost of ownership (TCO) comparison for each user-group before moving from thick-client to virtual desktop or any other substantive shift and there will be user-groups for whom this does not make sense, either economically or practically. However, it is clear that buying virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is substantially cheaper than it used to be and that it can and should be cheaper to run than a PC estate. If you don’t believe me, then give me a call, Molten Technologies will quote a custom-build virtual desktop infrastructure (no charge for the quotation) and do the TCO comparison for your organisation.