6 Tips for Introducing and Managing Virtual Desktops

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The authors offer six tips for IT teams that are considering virtual desktops.

laptops connected to the cloud
Credit: Sky Motion / Shutterstock.com © 2019

The Coast Community College District (CCCD) in southern California comprises three community colleges (Coastline Community College, Golden West College, and Orange Coast College), with a collective enrollment of more than 60,000 students and over 300 degree and certificate programs. CCCD first began using virtual desktops at the start of the 2015 fall semester and has grown the environment to 2,000 virtual desktops, approximately 90 percent of which are for students. Virtual desktops have provided many benefits for students and for those of us on the IT team.

Desktop virtualization is a great fit for higher education institutions because it addresses some fundamental challenges for colleges and universities. For example, how can login delays be prevented when 200 students in a lecture hall all try to log in at about the same time at the start of a class? The average login time for virtual desktop users at the Coast Community College District is less than one minute. Students want to work at all hours, but the colleges don't provide 24/7 access to facilities. With virtual desktops and smart profile management, students can get access to all their files and applications at any time, from anywhere, without compromising the district security. Summer updates and other maintenance now take much less work from those of us on the IT team because we don't need to be hands-on with each PC and we can update entire populations in the time it takes to update a single machine.

These are some of the benefits offered by a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). However, success is not guaranteed. There are many nuances to be learned and details to be managed in order to be successful. Managing virtual desktops isn't harder than managing physical ones; it's just different. The three of us have learned a lot in the last five years, and we want to share that knowledge. If you are considering virtual desktops, here are six tips, including a few things we wish we had learned before we started.

Tip #1: Investigate Use Cases and User Segmentation

Picking the right users to get virtual desktops and choosing the right applications to virtualize are two of the most important variables that determine desktop performance, user acceptance, and overall success. Early in the planning process, it is important to get detailed information about various users' resource consumption—not just how their physical desktops are provisioned but also how much the software, CPU, network, and storage resources are really used and how applications affect performance, for example.

Faculty and staff tend to log in to their computers in the morning and leave them running all day. Students log on and off multiple times during the day, from different locations across campus. Apps perform differently because of these usage differences. After you understand usage patterns, you can optimize the base images and virtual desktop infrastructure design. Once you develop base images for your different user groups, you need an efficient way to manage individual profiles. This is important because letting people personalize their desktops and giving them fast access to their files is essential for providing a good user experience. Plus, problems with profile management can really slow down login times and other desktop performance.

Tip #2: Get New Tools

We virtualized our desktops in the VMware environment and quickly learned that in order to manage the environment, we needed more than the tools and base functionality that came with it. We've integrated third-party solutions for inventorying software and collecting utilization data, application virtualization, profile management, VDI performance monitoring and more. This really doesn't differ from what we do for physical desktops, but the tools and key performance indicators (KPIs) are different.

Tip #3: Challenge Assumptions about Application Virtualization

Application strategy is very important because it affects infrastructure design, login time, ongoing performance, user satisfaction, and software licensing costs. You may have heard a lot about which applications can and cannot be virtualized. Our experience? We've virtualized more than 100 applications, and we haven't yet found one that we couldn't virtualize. We were told we couldn't run CAD-CAM applications on virtual desktops. We could, but we had to use more powerful graphics cards. We also use higher-end servers to host some of our high-GPU applications. However, just because you can virtualize an application doesn't mean you should. For example, we were able to virtualize some graphics-intensive apps, but we found they ran better on physical desktops.

For applications that will be virtualized, the main decision is to determine which ones to include in the base desktop image that users receive and which ones to deliver on demand by streaming. For us, the higher the number of people who need to use an application, the more likely we are to include it in the base image. If only a subset of our students needs a particular app, we're likely to stream it to the desktop on login, especially if the install isn't larger than 5GB.

Tip #4: Be Aware of Network Management Differences

Virtual desktops and the underlying infrastructure need to be monitored and managed differently, with different KPIs. Still, virtual desktops ultimately become easier to manage than physical ones. Network management becomes more important, because if the network is down, users can't access their desktops.

VDI offers the advantage of being able to update hundreds or even thousands of desktops simultaneously by updating the master desktop image. That has been a huge time saver for us, especially during summer maintenance, because we no longer have to physically touch every PC in all of our labs and other facilities around campus. We also save time during routine software and security updates. Our migration from Windows 7 to Windows 10 also went very smoothly.

The one-to-many master image also introduces risk, however. If you make a mistake during an update, that mistake may be applied to hundreds of desktops at once. You can protect against that by maintaining a spare pool of desktops in their pre-update state, which you can quickly revert to if problems surface.

Don't overlook the importance of user profile management. We've already noted how preserving user profiles has helped us improve acceptance and productivity. Profiles can be managed in different ways, such as using basic roaming profiles or third-party solutions, which can lead to big differences in login times and the ability to quickly access applications and local printers.

Tip #5: Look for New Skills

Virtual desktops require a virtual-specific skillset to manage them. We didn't have those skills when we started (server virtualization is a different ballgame). Rather than hiring the skills we needed, we were able to develop them in our own staff by committing to training. If you're going to move to virtual desktops, you need to budget for ongoing training. We regularly pay for training and send staff to conferences sessions. Ongoing professional development has been a big contributor to our VDI success.

Tip #6: Don't Overlook Change Management

It's not just the IT team members who need training; IT users need training too. One of the things we didn't do well at first was preparing staff and faculty for virtual desktops and getting their buy-in. We faced resistance, which we could have reduced with better pre-transition communication and training. Another mistake we made was migrating some users from Windows 7 to Windows 10 concurrently with converting them from physical to virtual desktops. Users blamed virtual desktops for some of the differences and inconveniences that were actually caused by the new Windows operating system. Lesson learned: when converting users to virtual desktops, make the desktop experience as close to the physical one as possible, and make other changes and upgrades later. Users will be more receptive.


The main message we want to convey is that virtual desktops are worth the effort. By taking the time to learn their differences and best-use cases, IT teams can deliver a better desktop experience to users while incurring less work for themselves.

For more on enterprise IT issues and leadership perspectives in higher education, please visit the EDUCAUSE Review Enterprise Connections blog as well as the Enterprise IT Program page.

Andrew De Leon is an I.T. Virtualization Engineer at CCCD.

Kevin Du is an I.T. Virtualization Engineer at CCCD.

Roger Glenn is an I.T. Infrastructure and Systems Engineer at CCCD.

© 2019 Andrew De Leon, Kevin Du, and Roger Glenn. The text of this work is licensed under a Creative Commons BY-ND 4.0 International License.