Keep working whatever the weather with virtual desktops

So here we are in the first official week of winter, and already a good part of the country has had to deal with the disruption caused by the kind of winter weather that just 6 weeks ago completely failed to be forecast by the Met Office ( This is the second time in less than 12 months that people have not been able to get to work on a large scale, with a cost to business running into £ billions at a time when we can least afford it.

Although many people just HAVE to physically get into work there are many others that have a desk and a computer, and as long as they have access to the information they need could easily do the same job wherever they were located. This is where the benefits of virtual desktops really kick in.

More and more companies are seeing that flexible working arrangements can save them money but also lead to increased productivity by enabling work to be done without the requirement of staff to submit themselves to long commutes, which invariably become longer through a creaking transport system and events such as the latest snow and ice problems.

We have all our systems centrally located in a data centre and can log in to our desktop either from the local office or home and get the same desktop, applications and access to data with no security implications; as no direct external access to the corporate network is required. No VPNs to set up for each remote worker, no managing different username and passwords, and no change in working environment to confuse or hinder when working remotely. The end user has the same working experience when in the office or at home, and this is a great benefit in being able to maintain productivity in and out of the main workplace.

This blog entry is being written from a thin client located in our office in Harrogate on a desktop hosted on our VMware system in Maidenhead – yet there is nothing to indicate that I am not working on a local PC, except the complete lack of noise from the fanless, diskless thin client!

Advances in virtualisation have now made it possible to provide just the basic desktop with no application or data available on that desktop, making it easier to manage and keep updated as well as stopping people squirreling company data away in their private document stores, where it is no use to anybody when they aren’t there. The applications are then virtualised themselves and  held in a central store, to be called upon by the end user when required. All data is held on a central file store as well, where it can be secured and properly managed – including the all important backups!

Let’s also not forget the green advantages as well. Virtualisation of servers has already led to a massive consolidation of physical servers so that typically the number of physical servers to support the same number of actual servers in a corporate environment has now dropped by around 75-90% – depending on original server utilisation. This saves electricity as well as the raw materials needed to build the servers, but what many people don’t realise is that quite often the biggest resource waste in the company is not the servers but the end clients.


Many companies will have desks with standard PCs, which then connect to the central network. Most of the work done by the PC is running applications locally (and therefore have to be installed locally on each device), for which the PC runs a 90-200W power supply with CPU and RAM requirements determined by all the loaded software. These computers also generally have 250GB – 1TB disks, which either go unused or even worse are stuffed with company data which is not backed up. There is no need for any of this when a thin client consuming 12W or less can be utilised to just render the screen images of a virtual desktop. All the processing, application activity, and data storage is then transferred to the central server farm – where it can be managed – and taken across a whole company the savings on electricity alone can be phenomenal.

One problem that has slowed the take up of virtual desktops is that they are heavy on disk IOPS (Input/output Operations Per Second) and therefore in the past this has required large banks of storage in the data centre to meet this demand. This to some extent obviates some of the savings in resources because due to the size of standard disks, and the requirement for lots of disks to provide the necessary IOPS, far more storage is required to support the virtual desktop system than is needed to store actual data. As disks require power to spin them there can be a transfer of power requirements away from the end client to the data centre, with reduced ROI.

However the continued development of Solid State Disks (SSDs) will put an end to this and really boost the ROI of a virtual desktop solution. Because the IOPS of a single SSD can often equal those of 24 regular disks, and the power requirements are significantly less than even a single regular spinning disk, the power savings for virtual desktop systems run on this technology are significant. It is possible to run over 2000 desktops on a single 2U storage unit consuming less than 200W – the equivalent spinning disk requirement for 2000 desktops would be around 480 600GB 15K SAS disks. This would be around 53U of space, or over 1 rack of storage. Typically this would consume about 6KW of power, and even more ludicrously provide about 280 TB of storage – just to run the PC images!

SSDs are limited on space at present, but developments in the technology and in-line data deduplication processes enable the storage to be used so efficiently that is less of  an issue than an initial investigation would appear to show. The mass data storage can still be located on traditional spinning disks as generally the IOPS can handle the requirements without an issue, and some applications such as streaming media require large sequential throughput, rather than quick random I/O. This leads to a hybrid environment with SSDs handling the high random I/O load and traditional disks handling the high capacity load, and works very well.

“But aren’t SSDs incredibly expensive compared to regular disks?” I hear you ask. Well on a 1-1 basis, yes, but as already indicated if you are to compress 480 down to 24 – a 20:1 ratio – to get what you need to run the system, then they are a heck of a lot cheaper as they are generally only about 3 times the cost of a fast regular disk, and developments will only make them cheaper. Couple that with the lower running costs and the savings on the end client devices and a virtual desktop system can actually pay for itself through measureable savings in under 3 years. This is before the intangible benefits which brings us round to the title of this blog entry again.

If you want to talk about how you can deliver a virtual corporate desktop and pay for it through real business savings then drop us a line at [email protected].

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