Many IT executives find it challenging to balance issues of user satisfaction and preferences with concerns about security and IT efficiency. A prime example of this is seen in users' desire to bring their own client devices to work, and to access the corporate network from anywhere, at any time, on any device. IT staffers, of course, would accommodate such preferences if they could do without compromising security or overtaxing their workload.

A 2011 survey by CompTIA, the nonprofit Computing Technology Industry Association, sets the stage perfectly. A full 85 percent of small and midsize businesses use personal tech devices for work purposes, the survey found, leading to two concerns. "The top concerns are security related," says Seth Robinson, director of technology research at CompTIA, "whether in the form of a virus being brought into the company network or some breach related to customer data. The time supporting these devices is also cited as a concern whether it's the time spent by IT staff or by an individual employee attempting to access corporate networks and applications."

Such concerns are addressed by virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), a form of server-based computing that leverages virtualization technology to host multiple unique clients, including operating systems and applications, on a server in the data center. Desktops are delivered to users via the corporate network or the internet. Users gain in flexibility by having their desktops accessible on different client devices, whereas IT benefits from centralized information security and client management.

Such pluses are building momentum for VDI solutions, but it's still early in the adoption cycle. The following scenarios will help you decide whether VDI could be right for your company.

Scenario 1: "We need better security." Improving security for the network and corporate data is the top reason to deploy a VDI solution. "By going to the VDI model, you gain a strengthened security posture," says Brent Doncaster, solutions marketing manager at Dell. "VDI gives a central point of control and allows policy-based access control to the network, applications and data." It also becomes easier to implement software patches and anti-malware protection, making your company more secure.

Scenario 2: "IT staff is always putting out fires." Centralized control of clients makes IT staffers more effective and efficient. Higher desktop reliability means fewer desk-side visits, and easier software upgrades and simpler backups and business continuity all save time and money, freeing IT staff for more strategic tasks.

Scenario 3: "We want to bring our own devices." If users are unhappy with a single-flavor of corporate client, VDI can help. It frees them to use a wider range of devices, such as Windows® and Linux® notebooks, Android™ and iOS tablets, and even mobile smart devices.

Scenario 4: "We crave desktop mobility." With VDI, clients can access the desktop from any network connection, a boon to users when they are on the road or working from home. Apart from the convenience, anytime-anywhere access can increase the hours that employees work.

Scenario 5: "We need to upgrade our PCs." It makes sense to consider VDI during a PC refresh cycle. Because most processing occurs on the server, VDI can extend the life of older, less powerful PCs. A refresh project with VDI can also let you replace PCs with less expensive thin clients or other devices.

If any of these scenarios hits home, VDI might be a good fit for your organization. As with any technical solution, it pays to start with a clear strategy for solving end-user problems and adding business value.

"We suggest that customers take a holistic approach to VDI," says Doncaster. "It's important to be clear on what you want to accomplish and to identify the key business objectives before implementing any technology. Then the business perspective will drive the technical solution to solving the organizational problem at hand."

Deployment options for VDI
Once you’ve decided VDI is right for your business, it's important to explore different deployment options. Although VDI does simplify desktop support and security, it can add complexity to the data center, increase network traffic (especially at boot up time) and require purchase of servers, virtualization software and middleware. So you’ll want to take stock of your current environment and consider the following deployment modes:

Buying best of breed: An enterprise-class solution, where IT staff sizes, specifies, deploys and supports all solution components, is probably the most complex. With this option, it pays to work with a solution provider or vendor with deep VDI experience.

Adding an appliance: Midsize firms with more modest requirements can benefit from a VDI appliance. Here the virtualization software and middleware are bundled in a secure server, sized by number of virtual clients. Installation takes just minutes, modules can be snapped together to support more users and the vendor provides a single point for technical support.

Calling on the cloud: Virtual desktops can also be sourced as a managed service from the cloud. This greatly lessens the need for IT support staff while turning the capital expenses of server-based computing into an operational expense.

About the author: Tom Farre, a freelance journalist and the former editor of VARBusiness, has been covering information technology for more than 20 years.