The sheer number of virtual desktop solutions on the market can be overwhelming for even the most seasoned IT staff, if you combine that with the unknown costs and virtual desktops becomes a non-starter before it even gets on the whiteboard. In an effort to make VDI evaluation and the subsequent roll-out a manageable reality, I have created a 12-step journey into VDI.

1. Analyze your environment/Determine your business case
IT historically jumps towards buzzwords, VDI being one of the more recent ones. Before you embark on a VDI journey you should make sure that you are truly solving a business need. You should document all your challenges, costs, and benefits of your current desktop environment, then compare them to a documented list of features you want in a VDI solution. Be prepared to present this solution to management with supporting costs and timetables. Your trusted reseller can help in determining the features as well as identify common challenges by running a desktop assessment in your environment including looking at your existing desktop hardware and installed software applications. You will be able to access this later to create an efficient practical VDI environment.

2. Categorize your users
In the same way that your accounting staff users require different software and desktop/laptop specifications than your engineering users, the virtual desktop requirements between those user groups will also differ. Separating the users into categories where the categories dictate the same or similar virtual desktop performance requirements (i.e., CPU and memory allocation) and the same or similar software package requirements will go a long way toward making the management of your VDI infrastructure easier (namely your desktop pools…more on this in Step 8 below). Most companies already have an org chart that is either broken down by department or location; this is a great starting point for your user categories.

3. Determine your base image
Now that you have your company broken down into manageable groups you can begin to determine a baseline that all your users or large groups of them will need. In my earlier blog (VDI Glossary) I defined a base image as the minimum desktop and application requirements for a set group of users. This would be used as a starting point for all full desktop deployments. When you analyzed your applications you found that some of the applications were installed on every workstation. These applications are most likely the start of your base image. This image is similar to the traditional “Ghost” image.

4. Create a pilot group
Do you have a small segment of users that are always willing to try out the latest and greatest software? This will probably make up 60% of your pilot group. You should also try to get 20% of your more challenging users, and then 20% of users that are standard for your user base. For the purposes of the pilot, it may be a good idea to exclude users who require the use of custom (non-COTS) applications as there may be unique challenges to publishing/virtualizing these applications. Ultimately the custom apps will need to be addressed, but for the purposes of the pilot, the 80/20 Rule in terms of satisfying the user base is probably a good idea.

5. Interview your pilot group
Your pilot group should not only be used as “Guinea pigs” for the VDI solution but they should also be able to tell you some of their current challenges and needs. Identifying and addressing those needs will create objective results at the end of the pilot. Some common questions to ask would be:
a) Are any of your current applications slow?
b) Do you have any applications that require a lot of processor of memory resources?
c) Can you access your apps remotely? If so, how is the performance? If not, do you want to?
d) Can you access your desktops remotely? If so, how is the performance? If not, do you want to?

6. Determine the first package to try
The questions from your interviews can help a lot at this point. You now have the basics of a requirements document. You know what the users already have and what they want. This is another good time to reach out to your trusted reseller as they should be able to take your requirements document and advise you on the viability of any particular VDI solution (e.g., VMware View, Xen Desktop, Microsoft Terminal Services) as they match up to your business and technical requirements.

7. Build a small test lab
Before you begin to roll out desktops to your users you should make sure your internal IT staff is comfortable with the product you have chosen. After all you will have to manage it after you have it deployed. One of the biggest benefits to virtual desktops should be ease of management. If you build a lab and find it is too hard to manage, start again with a different product.

8. Build your desktop pool
You have now determined a base image, selected how your applications will get published, and found a group of users to begin testing. A few things to keep in mind are the virtual specs of the user desktops, the original assessment should have given you some basic hardware configurations and requirements for CPU and memory that will keep the user performance as-is or better. The base image should also be tweaked to provide the best performance possible. Each of the VDI vendors along with Microsoft have whitepapers on optimizing Windows for virtual desktops, whether it be XP or Windows 7. Next comes the applications, between the interviews and the assessment you should have a list of applications to add to your first pool of virtual desktops. These applications could either be virtualized or added to a new base image. Depending on how you plan to present the applications might change your decision here. If you are only using the apps internal to your network and it is only being used by a few people then building it into an image and create more than one desktop pool would work well. If you find the application is going to be published out to remote users then application virtualization may be the right route, minimizing the need for more than one pool.

9. Determine your profile solution
The single largest pain point for most VDI deployments is dealing with the user data and profiles. My VDI glossary highlighted that the user profiles can contain all the settings that a user would change, to include the desktop background, files and icons on the desktop, and any settings assigned through application installation. Roaming profiles are built into Windows and are free but do you want to manage them? If you already have your documents redirected adding your profiles might not be a bad option. Will the users always be on the same virtual desktops? If so then you might be able to get away with using traditional profiles. Profiles can also be managed by a number of third party profile management packages that allow for the users desktop and icons to show quickly without refreshing the data from the server every time.

10. Rollout to your pilot group
Your pilot group knows you are about to give them a solution you hope will answer their concerns without compromising their productivity. This gives you the advantage that these users normally are anxious to give you all the feedback you could possibly want. Don’t be afraid to change things during the pilot phase. These users know that the virtual desktop infrastructure is still being built and will need tweaks. Don’t move forward though until you feel you have addressed all their concerns. If the solution does not address the concerns then look back at a different option. You don’t want to roll out to your entire company only to find that the one small issue actually impacts ¾ of your executives.

11. Gather feedback
Set your pilot at a specific timeframe and gather feedback from your users on every aspect of their experience, from transition to the virtual desktops to the hardware you used for them to access, to the performance of applications.
12. Begin your full implementation
As with any project you should have a lifecycle that allows you to go back to a step and adjust before moving forward. Once you are at a comfortable point with your feedback it is time for the full rollout.

Many analysts will say that virtual desktops are the future of IT. Hopefully by following the steps above you are able to determine if they are the future of your IT shop.