Until this year, every year since 2008 has been ‘the year of VDI’. The one where virtual desktop growth would increase exponentially and everything else would be the exception. I did my first virtual desktop project in 2010 (not for Computacenter I hasten to add). I’ll tell you now it was not a great success. Actually, that’s not fair, it did work, there were just some caveats. We explained to the users not to look at web pages with lots of pictures, or view videos (obviously) and to expect some typing delays during busy periods – that sort of thing. I’m sure you can imagine the conversations we had. My efforts to explain how clever it all was were wasted.
That was a while ago. The technology caught up and virtual desktop user experience improved to be at least on a par with their physical counterpart. So why has VDI remained at 10% of the desktop estate for the majority of organisations? Why does no-one talk about the year of VDI anymore and what is the future?
The problem with VDI remains its complexity. Complexity to design, deliver and support. Where mobility and flexibility are important the easiest and most cost-effective solution has been to give users laptops. This left 10% of users for whom virtual desktops made a real difference. These individuals usually worked in areas where focus of return on investment was about enabling ways of working that traditional desktops couldn’t, such as securing access to data from third parties and contractors; where task workers with limited application sets are required (call centres); or to provide the ability to return to a known good state quickly and easily (developers and testers).
Now it’s beginning to feel like VDI numbers are declining or at best have stabilised. The rise of Apple and Google in the enterprise and applications increasingly moving to SaaS (browser-based solutions) means we are no longer so reliant on a Windows operating system. Content management and contextual security has also removed some of the security concerns that previously made the case for VDI.
I’m not suggesting Windows is dead! Yes, device proliferation is a thing, but we will still need to access Windows apps that people lack the desire, or possibly the knowledge, to modernise. What we need is some way of delivering just the application through a client that runs on any OS. We can do that. We’ve been able to do that since 2001 with MetaFrame, earlier if you count WinFrame, so as is often the way, IT solutions previously discounted as ‘old-hat’ has come round again as the solution to all our problems. Things have moved on a bit though.
- Frame gives you the ability to access Windows apps just using a browser
- VMware utilise Windows RDSH through Workspace One to provide a fully integrated solution that can be deployed on premises or public cloud
- Citrix XenApp (the replacement to MetaFrame) can be consumed from the Azure marketplace, any public IaaS platform or on premises
The benefit to the user is the best native experience on the device they have chosen with the ability to access their business applications in a virtually seamless, albeit online-only, manner. The benefit to the organisation is the ability to offer choice while maintaining a simple and secure way of delivering Windows applications. At least it is for the foreseeable future.
I once heard someone say that XenDesktop was a great advertisement for XenApp. When you had a requirement for server-based computing nine times out of ten XenApp was the best answer. The year of VDI never came but server-based computing will be around for a while yet so maybe this year will be the year of the published app. Not that anyone’s going to be stupid enough to prophesy that!
A few years ago it looked like an inevitability – better connectivity, better remote-working solutions and collaboration tools combined with the drive to save money meant the office was finished. The daily commute would become as rare as telephone boxes or eating your hamburger with a knife and fork. So, with the end of office working looking like a safe bet for futurologists why are the most technologically advanced and disruptive companies now spending billions on flagship buildings?
Maybe because although software solutions have matured and developed and high-speed Internet access at home is now ubiquitous, face-to-face interactions remain far and away the most effective way to collaborate. It also turns out that people like being around other people (mostly) and the more time we spend at home the more we notice the jobs we’ve been prevaricating over. So perhaps the office isn’t dead, but it will need to look very different from the current offerings before we maximise its potential.
Today’s open plan offices were designed to enhance teamwork and encourage the exchange of ideas but the reality is somewhat different. Modern office designs are blamed for everything from reduced job satisfaction and productivity to increased stress and sickness. I’m sure I’m not the only one who has decided to stay at home because I’ve had some work to get on with. Google and Facebook (to name just two) recognise that getting people to work together effectively means giving them an environment that enables it, that they enjoy being in and which creates a culture that drives them. Cynically, some may say, it is also in their interest to create an atmosphere that encourages and facilitates people to spend longer at work.
The speed at which new ideas can be turned into profitable services is critical to success and relevance in the digital age. The buzz words now are all about activity-based working. The new spaces are not going to look like the offices most of us have spent time in. They offer a range of spaces that allow you to be effective whatever the type of work you want to carry out be that an impromptu meeting, a private phone call or a workshop. Match those spaces to technology and workstyles and it all starts to make sense.
How does it support Digital working?
As much as technology can be a barrier to good user experience so can physical workspaces. By offering different types of spaces people are not dictated to about how they should work or even where they should work. The role of the modern office is to allow people to access the spaces required for the tasks they need wish to carry out. Making these changes has other far-reaching effects.
Brand perception – A clean, modern website can pique interest in a company but that can disappear if the offices don’t match the image. Disruptive and innovative companies, more often than not, have disruptive and innovative office designs that represent the type of company they are and their culture.
Improved collaboration and communication – Modern workspace design is about enabling better collaboration and communication. Being able to socialise at work can build stronger relationships and improve the network you can draw upon through contact with colleagues outside your immediate circle.
Create or drive culture – The types of spaces you create can drive certain behaviours and motivate employees to try new ways of working and thinking, thus allowing the company more input into establishing or building on the culture it is striving for.
Maximise productivity – The open plan office is efficient in terms of space but a common complaint is the number of distractions, which can impact productivity. The latest office designs are about creating multiple types of spaces that mean people can find the place to work how they want.
Attract talent – Companies are fighting to attract and retain the talent. The balancing act is offering the technology to allow them to work effectively from wherever they want but also a physical environment that offers collaborative and social elements to balance work and life.
Boost staff morale – Once you’ve attracted talent you have to keep it. Time away from work can enhance the time at work so there’s a balance to be struck between areas designed to be productive in and those designed for pure fun. Jeff Weiner, CEO of LinkedIn, schedules two hours of uninterrupted thinking time per day. Bill Gates reputedly took a week off twice a year just to reflect without being disturbed. Think micro breaks though not half a day sitting round a swimming pool.
What’s the future?
The direction set by digital disruptors will no doubt be taken up by the corporates to some degree. For smaller companies and start-ups more innovative working styles have already started to emerge. Coworking is a style of work that involves a shared environment that contains people from more than one company. Believed to have begun in San Francisco in 2005 the number of seats has roughly doubled every year since. The concept began with tech start-ups looking to work somewhere other than coffee shops and home workers looking for more human interaction during their working day. People are seeing them as more than just a physical space now but as a way of networking and building a community of likeminded people.
There seems no slowing in the growth of co-working fuelled by the gig economy and the predicted rise in the numbers of contractors employed by companies. People will always want the social element of work and the networking opportunity that working alongside people from other businesses is a bonus.
It’s also likely that other industries will start to make use of shared working environments as they look to collaborate outside their own sphere. Businesses focusing on science, robotics and AI will move from out of town to make use of the urban tech hubs that are developing in areas like Old Street.
So, the Office is not dead!
Even with technology’s exponential rate of development there is no substitute for physical interaction. It is crucial to consider the human element of why we work the way we do and why the social side of that is so important to our overall health.
However, the reality for most companies is that office space is shrinking. Nearly all new designs have fewer desks than people and so rely on remote working to an extent. This only increases the need for whatever space remains works as effectively and efficiently as possible.
Not all companies are going to build Olympic-style running tracks on the roof of their building or full-size basketball courts in a bid to draw people into the office. The reality for most is that a certain amount of home working is now enforced as the ratio of desks/people decreases. The potential outcomes are the same though. By putting more thought into the spaces that people need for work the time they do spend there will be much more productive and enjoyable. Until then, if you need to get on with something and don’t want to work from home just put your headset on, listen to some calming music and pretend you’re on a conference call. You didn’t hear that from me right?
I remember clearly the day it seemed that VMworld ‘jumped the shark‘ (follow the link if you’re too young to get the reference). It was 2014 and Pat Gelsinger (VMware CEO) was giving his keynote speech. Behind him the enormous screens were repeatedly displaying the words ‘Brave’ and ‘Fluid’. Where was the technology? Where was the cool stuff? Thinking back though, maybe I was wrong to be so scathing.
It’s certainly true, that the pace at which technology is developing means it is no longer an obstacle to addressing most business problems. The challenge now, is how we position it, how we apply it, how we explain its value to people and how we help them get the most out of it. Maybe there was something in it after all. I was right about Evo:Rail though, Pat.
As my colleague, Paul Bray wrote in ‘The Shifting Role of IT in the Digital Workplace’, the IT department is contending with the move from an environment designed for stability to one designed for agility (or, in other words, fluidity). This is as much a cultural change for the people who have spent their careers focused on managing the pace of change and being risk adverse, as it is for the users having to adopt it. It is fair to say though, that not all users or businesses are that demanding of technology. It’s in these situations that IT staff need to perform a role that they are often not confident in doing or able to do effectively. They need to engage with the business (gasp!) They need to be able to translate business requirements into technology solutions and they need to communicate how those solutions can be measured against business metrics to show their value. IT can then have an input into the business case, without owning it.
Here’s an example – Business A has identified that it takes 60 days for sales staff to be ready for their first customer engagement and feels this is losing them the competitive edge. IT identifies that new starters have to be trained on 12 different systems. Booking and completing these courses takes valuable time and effort. In consolidating those 12 systems the business can provide a better user experience, reduce support costs and enable new sales staff to be productive much more quickly. The costs of the software that will do this can then be directly related to the increased speed at which new starters are out selling and being productive, and so the business case is created. In this way IT proves its value to the business and fights off the competition that often comes from disgruntled employees with a credit card.
Here’s another example that’s close to my heart. It’s time to roll out Windows 10. There’s no point burying your head in the sand, you’ve got till 14 January 2020 to get off Windows 7 (like you didn’t know). On its own it’s hard to push the benefits – better security, device support, blah, blah, blah… Windows 10 is just a platform for you to build your Digital Transformation on. Talk to the business, talk to the users. How would they like to work? How is the IT they currently use preventing them from doing that? What is the business plan for the next five years? How can the solutions you want to deploy support that? Or at the very least not be a hindrance to it. Then when you’ve introduced those solutions you will need to constantly innovate and measure their uptake as well as understanding what’s worked well and what hasn’t. In this way the ‘Evergreen’ nature of Windows 10 does help. The new normal is going to be constant change.
So yes, IT, you have to be ‘brave’ and you have to be ‘fluid’. You have to accept that the world is changing fast and there are new skills that have to be learnt in order to survive. The pace of that change brings with it a fluidity that needs to be managed and its benefits explained. What’s the alternative? As we see the continuing drive from vendors to consume everything as a service, IT is under real pressure to show its value, to be defined not as cost centre but as an innovator and enabler in the Digital World. That starts with being able to identify business needs and then recommend solutions for them. Telling the CxO that you’d like to roll out a new product so that users can search for things more easily is not explaining its value. IT needs to understand the language of business, support the organisation’s aspirations and provide metrics to show success.
The future of internal IT is becoming less and less technical as a result of this. Those that don’t embrace this and fail to see the importance of the ‘productisation’ of IT risk becoming irrelevant to the very businesses they support.
Alright I admit it, I’m jealous. I joined a start-up! I’ve seen Silicon Valley! We were going to change the world, I was going to be rich beyond the dreams of avarice, leave the rat race behind and open a beach bar somewhere. But you’ll have guessed by the fact that I’m writing this blog that that never happened. With hindsight, I would have joined Frame, the (fairly) new face of cloud-hosted application delivery. Their premise is simple; run any Windows application in the cloud and access it via a browser, no plugins required.
Originally called MainFrame2, the company began life enabling ISVs to offer applications as a service. It got off to a good start but its fortunes improved massively when the focus changed to end users and the business was relaunched as Frame. With recent investments from Microsoft Ventures, Bain Capital Ventures and In-Q-Tel growth continues at pace. On top of that they recently signed a major partnership with VMware to become part of their Workspace One offering with App Express.
Frame is essentially an Application-as-a-Service company, built for the cloud in the cloud. You install the applications into a sandbox environment and then, when you are ready, publish them to the Frame Desktop (as above) for users to consume. Your applications are installed onto Windows 2012 servers (the roadmap is for Windows 2016 and 10 soon) with the ability to make use of the GPUs offered by AWS and Azure to handle even the most intensive graphical applications. Those screen images are then delivered by Frame’s encrypted and highly compressed display-protocol to the end user allowing any application to run on almost any computer. Removing the complexity usually associated with virtual desktop computing to a few clicks.
So what are the uses for technology like this? Here are a few examples:
- Think about those expensive CAD and desktop publishing packages. With Frame you can centralise them in the public cloud of your choice, share the licensing costs, utilise cloud storage to make collaboration easy and reduce the need for expensive workstation hardware*
- Consider the education sector and the ability to use inexpensive Chromebooks to access any type of application and then not having to pay for those resources during the holidays
- Mobilise legacy business applications by migrating them to the cloud and using Frame to provide browser-based access without having to install anything on the client
* and not just hardware as Microsoft have brought in a new Windows 10 Pro for Workstation licence that affects any machine that has an Intel Xeon or AMD Opteron processor.
However, Frame is not for everyone or every use case. It’s not going to be a way to deal with legacy applications to aid that Windows 10 migration. If it won’t install on Windows Server 2012 it isn’t going to work. You also need to understand your responsibilities as a customer. Although you don’t need to licence the OS you still need to patch it, supply your own anti-virus client, update those applications and then secure the network access to it. And don’t think you can escape the fun that is Evergreen!
Cost-wise there’s a $ per month, per-user charge based on standard, pro or enterprise levels of functionality. Then an hourly rate based on usage and the resources that your VMs consume. Automation is key to controlling those costs ensuring that machines are not costing you money when they aren’t being used. There are features within the administrative console and the REST API to schedule the number of machines available and for those machines to be powered off when they aren’t required. Calculating the overall cost, like a lot of cloud initiatives, is not an easy one though and may not be necessarily cheaper than your current on premises solution. But there are features and functionality that no on premises solution will ever give you.
The big differentiator for Frame is its simplicity and ease of use. When you need to bring additional services you just plug them in. You need identity services? Frame supports them. You want to use your user profile management tool? No problem. Want to connect to Dropbox, Box or Google Drive? A couple of clicks and it’s setup, appearing as a mapped drive within the Frame explorer. Want to share your session with someone else to work on a document or drawing simply email them a link to the session? Need additional local storage or a database? Just click the utility server option and select your services.
Just as data and business applications are moving to the cloud, it makes sense for client applications to follow them. Another nice thing about Frame is that where companies utilise multiple clouds you have the ability to place your applications in the best location to serve them avoiding any lock-in. Also, as client estates become more diverse and the demand from users to work from anywhere increases so the ability to deliver applications simply through a browser becomes increasingly enticing.
Frame is very cool technology. If you’re currently considering XenApp running in Azure or XenApp Essentials, or considering at how to mobilise those legacy applications, then you need to take a look. There are limitations as to where it fits as a solution but where it is right there are clear benefits. Frame enables powerful applications to be accessed from almost any device. It enables applications to be delivered to an entire business anywhere in the world minutes after installing it once, regardless of the endpoint they are using.
So my dalliance with the world of start-ups was not a great success. For the guys at Frame I can see a much brighter future. The question though is how long will it last before someone swallows them up?