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Desktop management by the book

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The desktop has traditionally been an under-managed area of IT. Many businesses, especially smaller ones, may not have the expertise or the resource to manage physical desktops as well as they could.

As desktop virtualisation becomes more popular, IT departments face an increased management overhead. Suddenly, hundreds or thousands of desktops will be pulled into the datacentre, and they must all be accomodated by existing systems management frameworks and processes.

How can IT departments cope with this sea-change in the delivery of the desktop? We can explore two types of management framework: the higher-level, process-based management techniques afforded by frameworks like ITIL, and the lower-level technical frameworks for desktop and IT management designed to be implemented within management tools.

Abstract thinking

There are many management frameworks at the higher, more abstract level. COBIT focuses on IT governance and control, for example, while ISO 27001 addresses the management of security through IT. But given that desktop virtualisation promotes the provision of desktop computing as a service, perhaps a service-oriented management framework is more appropriate.

ITIL, the IT Infrastructure Library, comes from the UK’s Office of Government Computing and focuses on service provision in IT. Mike Osborne, managing director at business continuity service provider ICM, says that it fits the concept of desktops-as-a-service perfectly, even if those desktops are being accessed by employees or contractors outside the office.

“If you have an ITIL process that’s appropriate for your business, then I would suggest that that is equally applicable to the home user,” he says. “You will place an application helpdesk call in the same way from home as you would do in the corporate office. The ability to have people fix that problem is exactly the same.”

However, others disagree. Lyndon Hedderly, IT strategy senior manager at Centrix Consulting, a business consultancy, argues that traditional management systems work best with known quantities such as physical desktop management that are well understood.

He thinks that we need to nail the basics of virtualised desktop management before we can adapt management methodologies to fit it properly. The problem is that we’re still working on it, he argues: “Once we’ve created the perfect virtualised desktop estate, then we can start to develop the frameworks and commoditise the service.”

Testing times

Joel King, infrastructure architect at Standard Bank, helped to virtualise 70 per cent of the organisation’s desktops, says that the change management processes surrounding ITIL don’t alter very much, but the other things do. “It's not as much of an issue in terms of change management - we always conformed to ITIL. But it's putting in the different layers of testing,” he says. Testing applications to make sure that they can function effectively in a virtualised environment becomes far more important.

Another aspect of desktop virtualisation that becomes more important in service-based management frameworks is service monitoring. Event management processes are needed to detect and evaluate events pertaining to managed desktops, while helping to determine the appropriate response.

This is a good example of an area where processes and protocols intermingle. Service monitoring is a process that should be built into a set of management processes, but it’s also something that requires management information to be sent between between IT components and the tools used to manage them. This kind of task is where the lower-level management frameworks, that focus on data exchange, come in.

How many management frameworks does a guy need?

In the desktop management space, the Distributed Management Task Force has been the biggest proponent of management frameworks. Its flagship framework was the Desktop Management Interface (DMI), although as Jeff Hilland, vice president of technology at the DMTF admits, it is no longer very relevant in the marketplace. “Its successor was the Alert Standard Format (ASF) which didn’t have a big presence either."

More recently, the organisation has focused on Desktop and Mobile Architecture for Systems Hardware (DASH). This standard is designed to support tools that manage desktop and mobile systems, and it is virtualisation-aware.

While DASH focuses on the underlying hardware, Virtualisation Management (VMAN) concentrates on the management of virtual machines and virtual platforms. It is designed as a standard for virtualisation management tools vendors to follow.

As a part of that standard, the Open Virtualisation Format (OVF) is what the Hilland calls “the MP3 of the virtual systems definition”. An image supporting the OVF can be started and run on a supporting virtualisation platform.

“Those frameworks that don’t support out of the box support for the standards, most of them have ways of doing plugins where different vendors can get support,” Hilland says. “But that challenge is multiplied by each framework.”

Outsource this

There are other virtualisation management frameworks, of course, which are particular to specific vendors. Whichever you choose will depend largely on which vendor’s virtualisation system you buy - or on whether you use a combination of them.

One option for organisations that don’t have the expertise is to outsource some aspects of the management framework - such as service monitoring - to a third party. Orb Data, for example, has template that encompasses support, change, event and incident management and management reporting.

The bottom line is that management frameworks - both process and protocol-based - are an important part of minimising the cost and complexity that comes with managing a virtualised desktop environment. Factor these things into your design, deployment, and operational plans accordingly. ®

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