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DV Desktop virtualisation is today’s hot topic in IT circles but as with every innovation, rushing headlong into it without proper planning could land you in trouble. How can you go from zero to 60 in measured, sensible steps and avoid a car crash along the way?

In an ideal world, you would have all your ducks lined up in a neat row at the start of your desktop virtualisation project. In real life, things are usually messier, says Ewen Anderson, managing director of application delivery specialist Centralis.

“We rarely get the opportunity to ask all the questions we need to up front,” he says. “We do part of it in a pre-planning exercise. The rest can form part of the project.”

In other words, you will sometimes be feeling your way along as the project progresses. But here are a few things you need to consider right at the start.

Find your target

Obvious as it may be, many organisations skip the basic first step: understanding what you want to achieve. Is it primarily cost savings or worker flexibility? Is virtualisation your gateway to cloud computing and part of a bigger strategy?

Joel King, infrastructure architect for corporate infrastructure services at Standard Bank, knew precisely why he wanted desktop virtualisation. The company was moving to a new building and the power and cooling capabilities were not sufficient for the number of people he wanted to get into the offices. Desktop PCs accounted for most of the power consumption and heat output.

Count your assets

Before you virtualise, you have to know what it entails. Evaluate your desktop infrastructure, including the applications. Are there any obscure peripherals or graphics-intensive applications that could put a spoke in your wheels? Chat to your users: they may be using their desktops in ways you are not aware of. How often do they run their applications? Do they leave lots of apps open at once?

“We tested all the applications, but everyone used them in their own ways,” says King. (Traders are, after all, an idiosyncratic, egotistical lot.) “We might think that applications were working but people might use them in a different way and break them.”

Size your servers and your network

Desktop virtualisation works properly only if the back-end infrastructure is able to support it.

“You have to analyse and understand the data stream right back to the virtualised server,” says Chris Knowles, head of solutions at IT consultancy Dimension Data. That includes evaluating current network capacity, and ensuring that there is breathing space for low-latency session traffic – especially if operating over a WAN.

Choose your weapons

King’s pilot phase began after his systems had been evaluated and a selection of partners had been lined up to help.

“We got both of our chosen vendors in, set up three channel partners, dedicated test environments and did an analysis based on our requirements. That enabled us to sign off on our solution,” he says.

Test your aim

After selecting your vendors and products, the next step is to test your choice of architecture design and approach. Don’t mistake a pilot programme for a proof of concept.

“The proof of concept means making a virtualised desktop available with the top five applications installed, so that people can log in and test it,” says Anderson. “The pilot is when you’ve done the design and the underlying capacity planning, and given it to the first group of five users.”

When selecting users for your pilot, try and go for ambassadors – those in a position to spread the word.

“We ran a full-on pilot based on the end solution for a month and a half,” recalls King, adding that it formed part of the eight-month roll-out programme.

Squeeze the trigger slowly

Scaling a project can be the critical point where key assumptions fall down. “The implications in areas like storage really come to the fore when you reach 50 to 100 desktops,” says Anderson.

Stick to a measured approach, moving groups of users over to a virtualised desktop environment together. Typically, these users share common sets of applications and data. As you move each group, you can check for problems and correct as you go.

There is no silver bullet for success in a desktop virtualisation project, but following these guidelines will at least improve your chance of hitting the mark. ®

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