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The stick, the carrot and the desktop virt project

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The world would be a better place if it weren’t for all the users. Even the best laid technological plans can go awry when computer-hugging individuals decide that they don’t want to abandon their conventional systems or ways of working.

Nowhere is this more true than in the nascent world of desktop virtualisation. Many users treat their desktops like their phones – items of personal jewellery fashioned from silicon and software. People become attached to their desktop applications, and even the wallpaper that they look at while processing spreadsheets.

How can IT departments get users to buy into a desktop virtualisation concept that takes their treasured hardware away from them and spirits their prized applications and data off to a central server they’ve never seen?

Compared with the intrapersonal issues IT executives will have to deal with, the technology underpinning desktop virtualisation is simple, according to Richard Blanford, managing director of infrastructure integrator Fordway.

“The organisational and political arena is where desktop virtualisation projects often fail. Success relies heavily on good communications management,” he says.

Fraser Muir, director of information services and the learning resource centre at Edinburgh's Queen Margaret University, is familiar with the challenge of winning hearts and minds. He had to persuade 4,500 students and staff to move their desktop computers to a virtualised desktop infrastructure as part of a long-term project conceived in 2004.

The project involved integrating Wyse thin clients and HP blades. The IT team deployed about 30 of them as part of a six-month pilot in January 2005 and decided to proceed with the rollout after gaining broad approval. Muir focused on virtualising the applications rather than the whole desktop operating system, using a Linux-based agent on the thin client to access applications as needed.

However, Muir faced stiff resistance from some users who didn’t want to give up the fat clients they were used to. “It was a tiny minority, but we did have to spend a lot of energy and time on them. People came to this with a lot of misconceptions,” he recalls. Persuading them involved liberal applications of both carrot and stick.

The carrot

Muir had to dispel users’ concerns that the technology wouldn’t work, so the IT team ran a roadshow to demonstrate it. Their other trick was to bring users on-side by winning over influential members of university staff.

“We selected some pilot users at the start who were challenging but also well established in their area so we could spend a lot of time with them and they could then go and talk to their colleagues,” he says. In this, Muir was taking a leaf out of Malcolm Gladwell’s 2001 book The Tipping Point, which described how encouraging well-connected social influencers to spread your message can accelerate a nascent concept’s acceptance into the mainstream.

The stick

The University was planning to move from three older buildings into a new campus. It was to be a green building, and its heat envelope did not support the use of many PCs with a heavy heat output.

“Desktop virtualisation allowed us to put low-powered thin-client devices on the desktop, which in turn allowed us to minimise heat output,” Muir says. “It wasn’t just part of it, it was the essential part. If we’d had to put PCs on the desk we couldn’t have done it. This also gave us a large stick to beat up the less cooperative users.”

IT departments will get more user buy-in if they gently pull the users in their direction. Demonstrating that the technology works well is a crucial part of that, as is outlining other benefits such as the ability to work from home or to recover a PC easily and quickly in the event of a hardware failure. But there has to be a willingness to push back against users who simply won’t be persuaded.

“Take account of what they are saying, but don’t just roll over. Manage expectations early on,” advises Blanford.

That still leaves some users who might have legitimate concerns that desktop virtualisation might not support graphics cards or intensive applications like Autocad. Muir provides these users with a shared central area.

“We have six PCs available to 500 staff in shared workrooms. If they want access to an app that won’t run in the thin-client environment, they use those and then come back to their desks. Having a contingency is important,” he argues.

Clearly, leading a desktop virtualisation project is highly charged politically. If you want to succeed, ensure that charm is on your list of skills – you may be able to configure a router easily enough, but tweaking a user’s attitude might take a little more work.

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