XenDesktop Review

The most valuable feature to me as IT is that the disk is non-writable.


What is most valuable?

The most valuable feature to me as IT is that the disk is non-writable. This means that, during the course of computing, nothing permanently bad can happen to the computer. Viruses and malware can’t corrupt it. So instead of a rebuild of the machine, which used to happen at least twice a week, and take as much as 10 hours, it’s a simple reboot to fix.

The second most valuable feature is the ability to deliver a full-featured desktop to our users anytime, anywhere with an internet connection.

How has it helped my organization?

My organization is a 24x7 organization. About 2/3 of our users work a schedule that is 48 hours on, 96 hours off on rotating shifts and many of them live a minimum of 70 miles away. They frequently need to get into our computer system to adjust their work availability schedule for overtime and out-of-area deployments, as well as to keep in contact with other divisions that are on more-regular work schedules. We can now access our system in the field, which is valuable when interfacing with our constituency.

What needs improvement?

I would like to be able to document the VDIs better in XenServer and in the Delivery Controller, so that I could know which snapshot and image goes with which machine. I can do it now, but it takes some digging.

And I still think the training costs too much in relation to the cost of the software.

For how long have I used the solution?

I have been using it since 2009.

What was my experience with deployment of the solution?

In this newest version, I keep running out of allocated space on my storage server for the virtual desktop images. This is because I am used to the older Provisioning Server model where I had one image that streamed to many desktops. Now, I am using the Machine Creation Services model where each desktop has its own image. That’s okay, but the snapshots of previous images - so that versions can be rolled back - are giving me some problems to get used to. It’s not a terrible problem, it’s just me getting used to it and figuring out how to allow for it.

How is customer service and technical support?

Customer service and technical support is great, but you do have to pay for it. Don’t skimp and don’t try to do without it; you’ll be sorry. There are great knowledge base articles and a lot of active users, but there is also a lot that happens that never hits the knowledge base. The risk you run by trying to figure it out for yourself is dissatisfied and tremendously frustrated users - and this is not an area where you want to encourage a howling mob.

How was the initial setup?

My experience is no longer very valid as it was seven years ago and Citrix has made many changes and improvements. It was a nightmare. XenServer was, and is, pretty easy. XenDesktop was, and is, fairly complex. At that time, XenDesktop was poorly documented (as in, barely documented) and I ran into problems with everything, including lingering problems with the Nehalem processors in the hosts and problems in my storage server that caused the virtual desktops to arbitrarily hang for the first year or so. Every piece of the technology has matured, both hardware and software, since that time.

What about the implementation team?

The XenServer piece was done by a VAR from the RFP process. The original plan was for them to also do the XenDesktop piece but, as I mention elsewhere, while they were familiar with Virtual Iron, they were not familiar with XenDesktop and did not wish to undertake it. They subcontracted it to another installer, who tried to set it up but didn’t get it done past the problems I mention elsewhere. Then another VAR took a shot at it, but also couldn’t fix it. I spent a lot of time studying, learning, and trying to fix the issues and found the hardware problems and fixed them. But it still didn’t work properly. I finally bit the golden bullet and paid the price for a Citrix gold partner who rebuilt the XenDesktop installation correctly and taught me at the same time. From then on, it worked beautifully and met our vision. But that first 1.5 years was a bear to wrestle.

What was our ROI?

We extended our hardware replacement lifecycle by not having to replace endpoints. We no longer use PCs, but use thin/zero clients with no moving parts. So instead of a PC refresh every three years, we went 5-6 years and used a less expensive machine. Instead of three servers for the hosts, we were able to use only two when we replaced them and didn’t do it until seven years. Our fuel costs are down because a “broken” machine is a reboot, not a rebuild. We use less electricity. We are able to provide 24x7 on-call support with only 1.5 IT personnel instead of only 40 hours to our 24x7 operation. All our employees, many of whom live in another city, can access our system anytime they need to sign up for overtime or change their schedule (this is a fire department) or interact with any division on a different work schedule than their own. And our overall IT costs (hardware, software, utilities, etc.) dropped 44 percent over what we were spending in 2008 and certainly over our trajectory.

The initial purchase for the first three years will be more expensive than what you have been spending. There will be a higher cost in time, in the learning curve, and in effort. You won’t start to see a savings until after that; the savings comes over time and will affect many areas.

This is a disruptive technology and it will disrupt your organization; you’ll have to learn to think differently both in a technological fashion and in a budgetary fashion. If you’re used to measuring your ROI in terms of years, you’ll need to take a longer view. If you measure it by line item, you’ll need to take a wider view.

Which other solutions did I evaluate?

Initially, we were going to use Virtual Iron as it looked to be the simplest and least expensive to implement for a small organization. Oracle bought the product in the middle of our implementation process and killed it. Our implementer had a business relationship with a Citrix sales engineer who was able to show us the XenServer/XenDesktop product. It looked very similar, so we went with that. XenServer was; XenDesktop, not so much.

What other advice do I have?

Virtual desktops aren’t for every user and it takes some thought to apply them correctly. Heavy graphics programs will benefit from the use of GPUs in the host. Your best bet will be to use a Citrix partner VAR who knows what they’re doing to implement and train you; even though it costs more initially, it will prevent so much dissatisfaction, it will really be worth it. There are a number of little “gotchas”, optimizations, and tweaks they have already known about and Citrix has worked through and patched that will greatly impact the user acceptance and affect it will have on your organization.

Implementation will also take some user training and you’ll get some pushback. For example, people will need to be trained to use shortcuts on their desktops and to not put a lot of files and folders on them. Why? Because Microsoft Windows loads everything up on load and it will slow them down. It will make their user experience unsatisfactory while they WAIT FOREVER (more than 30 seconds to as much as minutes, depending on bandwidth and user perception) for their desktop to come up. They’ll get used to the new way of working and come to appreciate the new amenities, but you may have to keep reminding them of what they’ve gained when they complain of what they think they’ve lost. And they will lose some things; a virtual desktop is more locked down. The desktop is non-writable, which means that nothing writes to it. This is great for IT support, but not so great for some apps. Think about that in relation to software packages that you use as you’re planning. If you’ve got software that MUST write to the disk, you can do that, but you’ll have to allow for an additional writable disk to the desktop image for any user using that software.

Disclosure: I am a real user, and this review is based on my own experience and opinions.
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