Human Issues in Endpoint Virtualization – A Cautionary Tale

A couple of days ago, I was dropped into the middle of a sticky situation with one of my clients, a service provider of desktop systems – both physical and virtual (VMware and Citrix) – to schools across the country. This situation provides a great case study (or war story) of endpoint virtualization, especially the challenges that human issues pose to project success.

The General Manager had hired a new architect, a ‘virtualization expert’, to handle a new project. The architect designed a solution using server-hosted virtual desktops (in this case using XenDesktop) for the teachers and administrators in a school environment. The physical systems would use PXE boot to load a virtual desktop containing the apps that the teachers and administrators needed (essentially just Office 2007).

The problem was the teachers and administrators all had laptops, and needed to take their work home; meanwhile, the school was running a wireless network.  The laptops would need to establish and secure a wireless network connection before the virtual desktop could be loaded (via PXE). Unfortunately, they cannot establish a wireless connection until after they have already loaded an operating system. Catch 22.

My client – the desktop manager at the company – was called in to fix the problems created by the ‘virtualization expert’. He actually solved the technology issues pretty easily, by designing a new solution using server-based application virtualization (in this case with XenApp) on top of a simple, local, Windows installation. A common Windows installation would be easy to maintain; teachers could access their applications from any LAN or Internet connected location; applications and data would still be centrally stored and secured; they could cache applications on users’ laptops for offline use; and they could even publish a full virtual desktop for each user if they desired.

Despite some tradeoffs, it was clearly a better solution for their requirements.

When he called me, it was ostensibly to help him validate the new solution, but in the end my assignment wasn’t really about the technology; it was to help resolve relationship issues with the client, explain the project change to the client, advise them on license issues, help to get the customer on board with a different technology, liaise with the GM over resourcing and skill levels, etc.

As is typical, the human issues were the sticking point. After all – technology is easy; people are hard. 🙂 In fact, throughout the project, the real problem had been human issues – a lack of time and people; lack of skills or knowledge; and interdepartmental political issues:

  • Lacking the time and people internally for their endpoint virtualization initiatives, the company had hired an ‘expert’ with strong server virtualization knowledge.
  • Sadly, that person was himself lacking in skills and knowledge when it came to endpoint virtualization, so he designed a solution that would not work.
  • This created the political problems, as they failed to deliver the ‘virtual desktops’ that the customer was expecting.

These issues are in fact very typical, and EMA research (‘Real World Experiences of Endpoint Virtualization‘) shows they are actually the top three challenges most organizations need to overcome when implementing or expanding end-user virtualization deployments.

So what are the key takeaways for endpoint virtualization projects from this experience?

  • Devote time and resource to training internal staff – virtualization skills are tough to find, and most companies don’t have enough of them in-house; conversely, IT staff consistently cite training & skills development as a key reason they stay with their employers. Seems like training existing staff should be a no-brainer.
  • Use desktop experts for endpoint virtualization projects – EMA research has shown convincingly that the desktop team are the best people to handle endpoint virtualization projects. They are intimately familiar with the unique facets of endpoint environments (like the PXE limitations of WiFi networking), user requirements, mobility, application delivery, etc. Server people don’t deal with these issues every day; desktop people do.
  • If you do need new people, get the right ones – and if you train internally first, then you have a much better shot at hiring better new people too. In this case, they might have been able to see that a server virtualization guy was not the right fit for their endpoint virtualization needs.
  • Don’t get hung up on specific products or technologies – focus instead on solving problems. Endpoint virtualization is a continuum of technologies, each suited for different users and use cases. Understand that the best solutions may even involve multiple platforms, technologies, and even vendors.

This is a keen lesson on how to approach user-facing IT in general, and for endpoint virtualization in particular. Use your desktop expertise, supplemented with good training, and a deep understanding of your customer requirements, to focus on providing solutions to problems, rather than installing technologies and products.

[edited November 6, 2009 at 11:29:27 am – added link to EMA research]

3 comments for “Human Issues in Endpoint Virtualization – A Cautionary Tale

Comments are closed.