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Can desktop virtualization alleviate high commuting costs?

In the battle against the high cost of commuting to work, desktop virtualization may gain traction as a money saver and a means to reduce infrastructure costs as well.

As the high cost of fuel prompts many HR departments to offer commuting alternatives for workers, desktop virtualization may be an attractive way to keep talent from finding jobs closer to home. According to a recent study conducted by the outplacing firm Challenger, Grey and Christmas, 57% of respondents, which consisted of 100 human resources executive representing a wide variety of industries, reported that their companies were offering some kind of program to alleviate increased commuting costs.

Four-day workweeks, employee carpools and subsidized public transportation join expanded telecommuting options as possible solutions. But will allowing employees the option to work at home one or more days per week pave the way for increased VMware Desktop Infrastructure adoption?

Some VDI distributors are already noticing a direct correlation between desktop virtualization adoption and the need to cut back on commuting costs. "A little less than half of the VDI clients we're working with want to expand their mobility, and have the ability for users to work from home. And VDI provides them with a platform to do that," said New Age Technologies' Director of Technical Services, Eric Henderson. The majority of VDI clients Henderson works with represent health care, hospitality, and government sectors.

VDI ROI difficult to quantify
Although the main benefits of VDI are with the employee as far as the flexibility to work from home, businesses experience some common soft benefits, such as employee retention and simplification of user desktop support. This is in addition to maintenance and operations cost savings, a result of not having to purchase and maintain employee's company-owned laptops or desktops.

"Most of our clients are starting to see some savings in general office usage, including power and electricity savings from using a thinclient," Henderson said. Hard numbers on these savings, however, won't be available for another six months. He also mentioned that clients have reported positive changes in the general business environment due to the flexibility provided by the option to telecommute more frequently, and because some employees are more productive at home.

Henderson's sentiment is echoed by Burton Group senior analyst Chris Wolf. "It can be cheaper to provide remote access to users than to build another physical facility. In those cases, the company can clearly justify cost savings by devising a telecommute-VDI strategy." But coming out ahead using VDI "really depends on the structure of the company," added Wolf.

Alpharetta, Ga.-based Computer Resource Center Inc. (CRC) , an IT outsourcing and data protection company, is one firm benefiting from virtual desktop benefits. CRC owns and operates a 32,000 square foot facility; and as a result of their work-at-home plan using VMware Fusion virtual desktops, CRC has saved 16,000 square feet in office space, which they are trying to lease out. CRC CEO Robert Gerace estimates a savings of $400,000 in overhead as well as building maintenance and janitorial. They've already seen a $1200 per month savings in electricity costs.

VDI, however, does come at a price, and a few users have already expressed criticism because of the initial investment amount necessary to deploy a VDI environment. "The ROI is different from other virtualization technologies," Henderson said. "Cost savings comes from a longer term maintenance and operations standpoint, so the ROI isn't seen until later on, as opposed to server consolidation. On average, our customers are starting to see some return in the later part of the first year of deployment, to into the second year."

State tax credit and other ways to save money with VDI
Georgia's state government in particular is leading the push for an increase in telecommuting in conjuntion with the Clean Air Campaign. The state's new tax credit awards companies a one time $20,000 tax break for initializing a telecommute program and a $1,200 one-time tax credit per new employee who works at least 15 days per month from home.

CRC is one of the 135 businesses approved for the 2008 tax break, and is putting their credits to good use to overcome some of the difficulties associated with telecommuting technical workers. "If you're a technical worker, working at home becomes a problem. You need access to a lot of different environments. Setting up a work-at-home environment becomes a lot more challenging," said Computer Resource Center CEO Robert Gerace.

CRC solves the problem by running MacBookPros combined with VMware's virtual desktop solution for the Mac: Fusion. Running virtual desktops allows his workers to access Linux, 32- and 64-bit versions of Windows Server 2003, Windows XP and Vista from one machine, which is necessary as they take technical support calls. "It takes 30 seconds to suspend one OS and enable another one, and all for a $60 one time investment of VMware Fusion," said Gerace.

IT departments can also see savings through creative disaster recovery planning. One of Wolf's clients from the government sector has started looking at VDI as a major part of their disaster recovery plan. According to Wolf, government sectors must maintain "regroup" sites, which consist of duplicate servers and workstations for employees to work from in case primary buildings go down. In other words, instead of building additional recovery sites to support a growing workforce, workers will "regroup" at their own homes instead of working from a traditional recovery site.

Even with limitations, does VDI still trump VPNs?
Applications that require high-end graphics, such as CAD programs and health-care imaging software, may not be good candidates for VDI according to Henderson. These requirements, however, usually only affect a small number of possible VDI candidates. "Typically, it's only a small percentage of employees in an organization that use those applications," Henderson said.

CRC's Gerace said that it's still most common for clients to set up the work-at-home systems, which CRC assists with, by using Microsoft Terminal Services and VPN connections.

With hardware, software and licenses totaling around $200 per person for a VPN/Terminal Services package, Gerace said the combination is an appealing one, especially as the hardware and available bandwidth requirements are low for the end user.

Other problems for VDI adoption can arise during the initial proof-of-concept testing. If end users are accustomed to saving files to a local computer instead of to a network share or SharePoint-type application, the business will most likely have to run a parallel project to redirect data to a central location before moving into VDI. Henderson said this has caused one client to reconsider the VDI deployment for the time being, although the same client has reported that their 2009 budget allocates money to centralize the data storage and start a VDI deployment.

Despite these limitations, Henderson asserts that VDI is successful and worthwhile for 80% of end users. According to Wolf, IT managers making the case for VDI over typical VPN, webmail and IM bundles can also add security to their arsenal of pros.

"The real issue with using Citrix is security," Wolf said. The home user most likely has administrative rights on their computer, and could introduce malware to it. Even with Citrix, Wolf said, it's easy to install a keylogger and intercept keystrokes on the Citrix connection before any of the data goes through the VPN, which several organizations are dealing with.

Businesses have been counteracting this problem by deploying thin clients combined with virtual desktop technology to guarantee the security of the end-point device, according to Wolf. "Of course, there's a higher cost associated with using thin-clients. The alternative is to give the user a dedicated environment, such as a desktop computer, and a virtual machine they can run with VMware ACE."

ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Hannah Drake is the Associate Editor of Write to her at And be sure to check out our blog at IT Knowledge 

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