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It’s the Year of VDI! (Again) – A Costing Examination

Level 12

If you attended a major conference or read any industry press over the last handful of years, you’d be excused for thinking everyone would be running on virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) by now. We’ve been hearing “It’s the year of VDI!” for years. Yet, for a reasonably mature technology, VDI has never had the expected widespread, mainstream impact. When the concept first started getting attention, as with many technologies, everyone latched onto the big value prop that VDI would provide a great cost savings. However, it’s not quite as simple. Total cost of ownership (TCO) is often touted as the key metric with any technology, so today I’d like to explore some of the less apparent costs which go into VDI you should consider when evaluating if it’s the year of VDI for your organization.

Software Costs

You’d think this would be the easy part of the equation. OK, so you’ve got your hypervisor. Chances are, you’re looking at the same VDI vendor you use for traditional VMs, but the licensing model for VDI differs from your traditional hypervisor. Where a traditional hypervisor will typically be sold on a per-processor basis, VDI licensing is usually sold on a device or per-user basis. There’s even bifurcation within the per-user basis—you may see licenses sold on a named user (Mary and Stan get licenses, but Joe’s been a bad boy, so no license for him) or a concurrent-user basis (I get “N” licenses and that’s how many people can connect at a given time.) Whichever path you follow should be directed by your use case. If you’re looking to solve for shift workers, follow the sun, or similar, you may want to consider concurrent users, so multiple people can take advantage of a single license. If you’ve determined you have specialized workers with specific needs (think power users) then a named license model might make sense. As it pertains to our cost discussion, the concurrent user licensing can apply to multiple people, and hence has a higher dollar value associated with it, whereas the named-user license models may have a smaller spend associated, but come at the cost of reducing flexibility.

That was the “easy” part of software element of the equation, but there are several other software considerations we need to consider to roll up in the TCO of your VDI proposal.

Monitoring

At a high level, when you think about all the various layers to a VDI solution, you need insight into the servers running the platform as well as their underlying infrastructure, the network carrying your VDI data, the hardware your users leverage to access their VDI desktop, and performance within the desktop OS itself. Does your existing monitoring platform have the capabilities to monitor all these elements? If yes, great! You just need to account for some portion of that in your cost calculations. If no, there’s a lot of homework in front of you, and at the end you’re going to need an additional purchase order to get the monitoring platform.

Application & Desktop Delivery

This big topic could be its own post, but how are you going to deliver desktops to your users and how are the applications going to be delivered within the desktop? Are you going to leverage the VDI vendor’s capabilities to deliver applications? Are the apps going to be virtualized? Some of these options come with higher-level licensing from your VDI platform provider, but if you go with a lower-tier VDI license, you might want a third-party delivery mechanism. Or you could do it manually, but we’ll come back to that in a minute.

Backups

At some level you’re just backing up a bunch of VMs, but does your current solution meet the unique needs of a VDI environment? If you’re deploying any persistent desktops at all, the backup design will look very different from the minimal needs a non-persistent design presents. Don’t forget delivery of your VDI solution will likely encompass a number of servers that should be considered for protection.

One last word on software costs: A C-level exec once said to me, “We don’t need to buy operating system licenses; we’re virtualized.” It doesn’t quite work this way. Take the time to understand the licensing agreements for your desktop OS. I promise you’ll want to proactively learn what they say before the vendor’s auditors come knocking.

Hardware Costs

The most obvious hardware cost is how you connect to your VDI environment. If you’re a BYOD shop, the job is done—just provide your users the agent they need. Typically though, you’re going to be evaluating zero clients against thin clients. Zero clients are essentially dumb terminals with little configurability and little flexibility, but it’s probably your cheapest option to purchase. Thin clients can cost the equivalent of a desktop PC, but you get a lot more horsepower, as they typically have better chipsets, memory, and graphics. Thin clients will usually support more protocols if you leverage multiple solutions as well. Know your users and understand their workloads to help you decide on client direction.

In my experience, storage plays a very important role in the success of the VDI project. Do you plan on leveraging persistent or non-persistent desktops? The answer will drive whether you need additional storage capacity to support persistent desktops or not. Have you ever experienced a boot storm? If you have, then you know your storage components can create a bottleneck affecting your user experience. Take the time to evaluate your IOPS needs and whether all the components of your storage sub-system can support everyone in the organization logging on at 9 a.m. on a Tuesday following a long holiday weekend. Failure to do so could result in an unexpected and potentially expensive “opportunity” for a new storage project.

Opportunities and Opportunity Cost

What you give up and gain from a VDI solution is probably going to be the hardest part to quantify but should be one of the larger drivers of the initiative. Troubleshooting a Windows desktop, for example, is a relatively straightforward process. What if the Windows machine is a VDI desktop? Once you’ve converted to a virtual desktop infrastructure, you now have to troubleshoot the OS, the connecting hardware, VDI protocol, network, hypervisor, storage, and so on. Does your organization have the appetite for the time and resource commitments to retool your team to handle this new paradigm? Conversely, anyone who’s had to patch hundreds or thousands of desktops (and deal with the fallout) will probably appreciate the simplicity of patching a single golden image.

How security-conscious is your organization? If data loss prevention is a big concern for you, then all the other costs may fall by the wayside, as a VDI solution provides a lot of security measures to better protect your organization right out of the box. What about offering seamless upgrades to your users? How much value would you place on that user experience? I know we find it highly valuable both from an effort and a goodwill perspective.

A lot of hidden costs and considerations can trip up your VDI initiative. While it’s hard to cover everything, hopefully this piece helps illuminate some dark corners.

25 Comments
MVP
MVP

Thanks for the article.

Level 14

Thanks for the article!

Level 12

Who else had to google what bifurcation means?

Level 13

Good write up, thanks.  We've had multiple people come to us convinced that VDI offered huge cost savings based on some sales / marketing thing they had read.  We've yet to see an instance where the cost savings was even close to physical.  That doesn't necessarily mean it's a bad idea depending on your use case, but for us it wasn't even close to making sense.

Level 12

In my (admittedly limited) experience, VDI is great in the office but not so good on the road. Within the office a persistent VDI desktop for each user made my life a whole lot easier because I wouldn't have to deal with upset users demanding a lot of unnecessary work from me to make their new desktop look like the old one.

BUT workers who spend a good amount of time on the road or in remote locations will often want to work with insufficient bandwidth for a remote desktop. Some will work without any internet connection so they will need a local desktop and mirroring of files between their notebook and the file server.

Therefore we have to be flexible, just like with everything else that we do.

Level 12

Absolutely! It’s hard to cover it all in such a short piece, so I focused on strict costs and left use cases for another day.

Level 12

You are completely correct. Mobility is a huge factor when considering whether the use case fits your needs.

Thanks for reading and contributing

Level 15

Thanks for posting.  The hidden costs with VDI is the extra licensing that you may have to pay.  You would like that simply paying the licenses for the O/S on the Terminal Server or View-type server would suffice, but you end up paying for desktop licenses, any software running on the VDI, and then the RDS type licensing.  When you look at the the true TCO, unless you have a specific security need, VDI becomes equal in cost to physical desktops.  Performance can suffer depending on the VDI configuration.  Plus, the zero-client anymore costs within $100 of a physical PC before all the licensing.  Just some notes from the trenches.

Level 7

Does Solarwinds have the ability to monitor non-persistent VDIs?

Level 15

Thanks for the article!

I like the article, scott.driver​ laid out a lot of of great points about support and cost of VDI. We do use VDI, we have a max of about 2500 concurrent sessions of a non-persistent desktop on a weekday, usually early to mid-morning. VDI's TCO ebb and flow from slightly cheaper to a bit more expensive depending on hardware refresh cycles and other similar concerns. Typically I say its a bit more costly.

Why do we do it? We add value to the desktop. Since I am in a larger healthcare setting, availability is the top priority for IT systems, followed very closely by security. Many of our systems do not make that easy. VDI allows a complicated client configuration to be fully tested and secured (data stays in the data center much easier), then rolled out (and roll back if needed) to our users very quickly and consistently. We have over 10K thin client endpoints that are used, and users can pull it up from home with no noticeable change in usage. As they move from room to room or around the facility, their session follows them, all secured by badge/fingerprint. When apps act up or fail, start a new session. When hardware fails, replacement is quick and non invasive to the patients and staff.

So VDI is not the cheapest way to get Office to a user. But it might provide better value to the business if your business needs what VDI excels at.

Level 12

You also make a lot of good points @jm_sysadmin. For us the real value, for which it's hard to assign a dollar value, are the availability, compliance and security we get from the solution.

Level 12

Thanks for the read!

Level 12

If I may, and perhaps I didn't describe this as well as I had hoped in the piece, but it's not just extra licensing. It's layers of extra licensing: Hypervisor, OS, deployment/management platforms, perhaps your zero/thin hardware requires additional licenses. The solution also may need specialized infrastructure surrounding it in terms of lad balancers, monitoring and backups. There's a lot there.

Thanks for contributing to the conversation!

If only we could compare costs of identical businesses and processes using, and NOT using, VDI.

Level 12

If only!

Level 11

Thanks for the article.

Level 12

Thanks for the read

Level 12

are you ok? Do we need to call an ambulance?

In all seriousness, could you expand on your comment?

Level 7

Our company is implementing VDI to improve performance of an application. (Instead of improving the application ) They say there was a side by side test with VDI vs desktop at the office, and VDI was faster. They also think the hardware replacement for the desktop will be cheaper in the long run. I guess we'll see how this goes. Thanks for the article!

Level 13

Thanks for the article

Level 12

it's too expensive for the company i work for

Level 12

Well... that's an interesting use case. It all depends in that case on what hardware you have on your desktop and VDI. If your VDI is backed by high powered servers, with GPU's and flash storage, that would beat a 3 year old dell desktop with built in VGA and spinning disk any day of the week.

I'm super interested in this. If you get a chance to come back and update with the results, I'd love to hear.

Level 12

It can definitely be pricey, which is why you really need to look at your use cases. If you're shooting for a cost reduction, that's just a myth that VDI will inherently save money.

Level 12

thanks for the read

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