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LAS VEGAS-Virtual desktops are seductive, but it may be best to deploy them slowly.

That's according to Michael Norton, manager, information systems, Spokane Teachers CU (STCU), who spoke at the CUNA Technology Council Summit here.

Virtual desktops are tiny, requiring about as much space as a mug of coffee. They're also easier to manage and last longer (see related story).

After all, they have no CPU, memory, operating system, software, drivers or moving parts. They exist only to connect to a central server and plug in peripherals like keyboards and scanners.

Yet introducing virtual desktops to the organization can be full of twists and turns, much more so than for popular virtual servers, suggested Norton at the recent CUNA Technology Council Summit here.

"Each benefit you'll get with virtual desktops later is a huge project now," he said. "There's a ton of choices just with hardware. Start with the project that will give you the biggest return."

For the $1.4-billion STCU, that project is known as "application streaming." The CU is delivering each employee's customized software from a central server to the employee's desktop over the network, instead of installing the software on each desktop. "Application streaming is good ROI," said Norton.

After considering Citrix and Microsoft application streaming solutions, STCU chose ThinApp from Palo Alto, Calif.-based VMware. "ThinApp is a step towards virtual desktops," said Norton.

Custom Configuration Offered
Each user can configure the software to his or her liking, and ThinApp will deliver each custom configuration going forward.

The IT department saves money because the software can be updated and patched from the central server. Using Microsoft Active Directory, IT also can control who accesses the software.

Better yet, ThinApp is a game-changer for the mobile workforce, as any bundle of user applications can be loaded onto a memory stick. The user plugs the stick into any computer USB port and logs in, and the stick delivers all the user's personalized applications.

A complete virtual desktop environment is harder to create than a complete virtual server environment, Norton continued. "Desktops are more complicated because you've got end-user expectations involved, and you've got peripherals that have to be attached."

Financial institutions use a lot of desktop peripherals, such as check scanners, fingerprint readers and signature pads, which "don't play nicely yet" when plugged into virtual desktops, he added.

Virtual desktops may slow down to an unbearable speed when running over slow connections on the credit union wide-area network (WAN), said Norton. One solution is to use virtual desktop software embedded with PC-over-internet protocol (PCoIP), which will speed up the connection. "You can even watch YouTube and do 3D CAD stuff" through virtual desktops with PCoIP. It's the future of desktop virtualization."

CUs at want to use virtual desktops face a hoard of decisions, from which virtualization platform to use to choosing an end-user device, a connection broker, a communications protocol, management software and virtual servers, Norton said.

"Your server needs to be a beast," he said. "You need as much CPU and RAM as you can afford. Your users have zero tolerance for the virtual desktop to be slow or jerky."

Most software vendors don't yet support virtual desktops, and it may take a bit of prodding to get their help. "They may blame problems with the software on the fact that it's running in a virtual environment," Norton said.

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