CIOs: VDI? Maybe, just maybe, it really will be different this time...

Tech bosses endorse thin clients, throw hands in the air over millennials

The Register Roundtable Room at The Soho Hotel

Register Roundtable Sometimes technology visions bubble along under the radar, quite often scorned then, following a change of name or emphasis, ubiquitous. Utility computing became the cloud, and we know how that’s taken off. Groupware became collaboration. Thin clients have morphed into VDI, and… Well, seems like a good time to get a bunch of CIOs together and thrash out just what’s going on here.

So it was that a week or two ago a number of CIOs and other tech bosses came together with the Reg at our hired Soho bunker. The topic of the day was “From Desktop Management to Digital Workplace Delivery”.

Of course, our attendees, with their strong views and years of experience, will always push the agenda to its limits. We were expecting some strong differences of opinion. What we were not expecting, perhaps, was to hear just how easy thin clients could make the lives of those CIOs who tried them.

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

The conversation started with the question: “What is the game we’re playing now with end-user computing?” A sharp intake of breath. Or to put it another way: ”Does anyone still have a desktop support group?”

Ah, yes, those guys. Breathe out, and laughter all round. Yes, they’re there, was the consensus, although desktop support group might be a misnomer (just don’t tell the desktop support group).

“It’s about how you evolve that team into supporting a solution rather than a device. That in itself has its challenges,” ventured one tablista. And of course, those solutions are not necessarily desktop-based at all. But we’ll get to the joys and excesses of BYOD – and millennials – in a moment.

First of all, let’s consider the management of all those devices, desktop or otherwise. As might be expected, our attendees, who might be loosely grouped under the financial services banner, expected a bit more discipline in terms of what their users can use.

One financial industry specialist said his team would make a reasonable effort to support any device a user cared to produce – within reason. In return, users will take a firm “no” for an answer.

Another said: “There’s a general awareness that it’s a very regulated environment with a lot of security needs. Therefore there aren’t that many solutions that can be offered, and the user base are generally acceptant of that.”

Our delegate added: “There’s the back-of-house functions that you provide utility solutions for, and then there’s the revenue-generating functions where there's much more likely to be a business driver to evolve niche solutions.”

It's Windows all the way

Anyway, those “desktop support groups”. When it comes to the actual desktop, what are they actually supporting? Well, we were shocked, SHOCKED, that it was Windows, overwhelmingly.

“Most people working in offices now have had so much exposure to Windows it’s like a second skin, and when you try and pull it away…” one contributor told us. “When we gave people Macs, some handed them back and said can I have a Toshiba.”

If you find this mind boggling, we’re guessing you aren’t involved with a sales team that lives or dies by its Powerpoint skills.

Of course, running the company on Windows doesn’t mean senior management wants Windows boxes cluttering up the place. One attendee related how the big bosses wanted front-of-house tech to be all sleek Macs to coordinate with the sleek front-of-house staff.

IT did as it was asked, “and then my service delivery manager was going around putting Windows on and telling the receptionists 'don’t tell the bosses'”. Meanwhile said receptionists were left puzzling why their Mac desktop looked strangely familiar, though the keyboard didn’t work as expected.

A nice problem to have, some might say. But the fact that Windows remains pretty much the default end-user platform doesn’t mean there isn’t some fraying round the edges. It’s a truism that consumer tech now races ahead of corporate tech and is driving (some) business buying decisions.

“Users are coming to us demanding to use a tablet, demanding to integrate their Apple watch with Office 365, and it’s like whoah, these things do not exist," said one attendee.

And while it might be just possible to convince the CEO that some things just aren’t possible – not without spending millions at least – there’s another constituency that will just flow around any barrier our attendees erect. Yes, those millennials.

Our delegate quoted above quickly ran out of metaphors when describing the joys of working with this particular demographic. Uphill, water, cats… you get the picture.

“I’m working almost exclusively with millennials now, and as a user base they’re almost impossible to corral. If you try and put up constraints around them, they will just find a way to circumvent them,” another told us.

“I don’t even know what they’re bringing now. They’re just bringing random objects. Oh, it’s got a USB port, it’s a peripheral of some sort.”

When it comes to controlling the “web experience”, our CIO said: “If we try and put in constraints, they just fire up the hotspots on their phones."

Or as another said, people wander over to the Costa next door and suddenly your corporate data is streaming over unprotected Wi-Fi.

One of our financial sector types even provides a separate Wi-Fi network for employees to use their own devices in-house – without compromising the corporate network.

How to tackle this pre-middle-aged scourge? Aversion therapy was the consensus amongst the attendees, though there was some debate as to whether 25 volts on the shock collar was enough.

If this is not necessarily surprising, neither is just how enthusiastic the table was about centralisation, control and locking down of client devices – despite the inevitable backlash we might expect from anyone under 35.

As we mentioned above, some of our attendees have found that it is perfectly possible to run a large PC estate without having to concede too much control to users – when the need for that control is backed by some fairly swingeing regulation.

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