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Thorsten Stremlau, Lenovo’s WW Principal IT Architect, on how recent improvements have made VDI more compelling than ever.
Virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) is a real emerging trend in the tech industry, with recent seismic shifts in the technology making it a much more compelling proposition for many organisations.
With a standard desktop computer, all the computing power sits on your desk (or in your lap, in the case of a laptop). So you have a local image, local applications, local computing power, all contained within the confines of the computer. VDI, on the other hand, outsources the computing power to a server. So now you have a dumb PC – or ‘thin client’, which is the technical name for it – that doesn’t have much capacity or power, and the server runs the operating system. It sends video through the network to the local PC, creating a virtualised desktop environment.
It does save companies money, but the trade-off has been a much worse user experience. Until now.
If you’re only looking at the bottom line, VDI has always been a good choice. Firms can spend $800 (€739) on a standard desktop computer for their employees. Or they can spend $300 (€277) on a much less capable machine and invest the same amount per machine into their own server infrastructure. From a financial perspective, they see the $200 (€185) saving per machine and go for that, with little thought for any consequences.
Such a set-up is fine for some tasks. But for more advanced undertakings, such as video conferencing, you need local processing power. And, at that point, a thin client just isn’t going to hack it, because the servers are being shared by hundreds of people. So a processor-intensive task like rendering live video is asking too much of it. All of which makes the user experience really, really bad.
An interesting figure working within the IT industry is Brian Madden. According to him, you don’t save money by moving to a virtualised desktop experience, you save money because you’re buying your employees a worse machine. You’re degrading the user experience, and, in the long run, that could cost you much more.
Lenovo is working to vastly improve VDI. One of the main breakthroughs is the introduction of graphics cards.
Typically, servers don’t have graphics cards because they’re not meant for gaming or graphics, they just process information. Hence they’re powered purely by CPUs (central processing unit), rather than GPUs (graphics processing unit). CPUs are like the engine of the computer, but they’re not very good at processing graphics. This is a problem when it comes to graphics-reliant tasks like video conferencing.
Working with a partner, Lenovo came up with a box that holds lots of graphics cards, and is then connected to the server. This allows it to virtualise all those graphics cards, so that in a VDI environment, even a very low-cost machine can provide a really slick video experience. This virtual graphics power can be shared with clients in accordance to their needs.
Taking this a step further, we can have a software-defined video infrastructure. This involves multiple servers and even workstations that have high-end graphics cards. You’ve then got a pool of graphics cards and GPUs which you can centralise in a VDI environment, drawing together not only the graphics and processing power of the server but also of the workstations. This not only saves the client money, it also gives them an amazing user experience.
These new technologies aren’t just great for video conferencing. They can improve any use-case involving graphics, like multimedia. Call centres typically train their staff using online videos, because person-to-person training is very expensive. A well-equipped call centre will use videos, animations and video conferencing in their environment. Using traditional VDI, this would be horrible, but these solutions make it much slicker.
With developments in technology and the introduction of graphics cards to the server, customers can move to VDI safe in the knowledge that they’ll get the user experience you would expect from modern technology.