Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) is Finally Here – And a Viable Option for Nonprofits

Desktops take up an inordinate amount of most nonprofits’ time. They are a constant drain on resources that could be better spent addressing actual problems. For a while now we’ve been hearing about the end of this grind, the death of the “physical desktop.” But this, like the “paperless office,” will almost certainly never come entirely to fruition. We are, however, beginning to see the emergence of a new class of technologies that promise to greatly simplify the administration and maintenance of office computing– Virtual Desktops.

My organization, Tech Impact, is a 501c3 that works exclusively with other nonprofit organizations, and we have been watching Virtual Desktops for years. We are happy to say that the technology is finally beginning to be accessible for even smaller nonprofit organizations.

Desktops

For the purposes of this article, a “desktop” is just a full-featured Windows installation that includes applications like Microsoft Office.

The problem is that desktops can be difficult to maintain. They get less stable over time, the hardware begins to fail, and problems can leave users unable to work for days. Virtual desktops attempt to deal with this issue by taking the “desktop” out of your local office and putting it in the cloud. In a virtual desktop work environment, each user has a dedicated Virtual Desktop that runs Windows 7 and all of his or her applications – there is still a start menu. Users can do anything in their virtual desktop that they’re used to doing on their physical, on-premise, desktop.

Physical and Virtual Desktop. Can you tell which is which?
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Virtual desktops tend to be much easier to manage and don’t have the same risks as physical desktops or remote desktop solutions:

  • Since no data is actually living on a physical device in your office, there is less to worry about.
  • Virtual Desktops are centrally managed, and the task of rolling out new software or fixing a virus issue only takes a few moments.
  • Because each user has their own desktop (unlike Terminal Services / Remote Desktop), one user can’t bring down the environment for others, and software works exactly the same way it does now.
  • Virtual Desktops are all running in the same place, along with your Virtual Servers. No matter where your users are located, they’re still connecting to the same Virtual Desktop. This means that users in different geographical locations can take advantage of the same databases and file shares. No more VPN.

Access Devices

Of course, your users will still need a physical device to access a cloud desktop. However, because this device doesn’t store any data or do any processing it doesn’t need to be anything particularly special. Some organizations choose to purchase specialized devices called “thinclients” or “zeroclients” that last longer than a traditional computer and only connect to a Virtual Desktop. Others use iOS devices (iPhones and iPads), Android devices, or Microsoft Surface tablets. There is, however, another option. We recommend you just use donated computers! All you need is a computer that functions well enough to run the connection software; everything else is done in the cloud.

Each device will need an Internet connection, but not a particularly fast one. Since only a picture of the monitor, and keyboard and mouse strokes are being transferred, almost any Internet connection will be sufficient.

Why use a Desktop at all?

Of course, the data services that nonprofits use are increasingly available as browser-based applications or as simplified “apps” that can be installed on a tablet or mobile phone. The hardware required to access and use these services is simple and affordable. Because of its simplicity it is also hard to break and easy to manage. Chromebooks currently serve as the archetype for this mode. They store no data, offer only a web browser, and automatically update. Why do we need desktops, Virtual or Physical, at all?

Maybe someday these technologies will be viable alternatives for nonprofits. However, right now these simplified devices just don’t offer enough functionality to be the only device a user has. The ability to run standard software and use Microsoft Office is critical for many organizations. Perhaps even more crippling are the drastic changes in user behavior these applications represent for organizations. Many organizations just don’t have the additional time or capacity to train their users to make the switch effectively, preventing the purely web-based applications from being a viable option.

When are Virtual Desktops Practical?

Virtual Desktops aren’t always the right solution. To help you decide, we’ve put together a flowchart. This chart outlines most of the important questions you should be considering when choosing a desktop solution, and will help you decide if Virtual Desktops, light-weight internet access devices, or even a Bring Your Own Desktop (BYOD) policy is the right solution for your organization.

Decision Flowchart: Are Virtual Desktops Right for You?
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Right now Virtual Desktops are almost exclusively offered by smaller companies and corporations – you can’t get them from Amazon or Microsoft or even Rackspace. You should expect to pay between $25/desktop/month to $125/desktop/month depending on the company and their willingness to work with nonprofit organizations (our most popular Virtual Desktop is $35/month). These costs should continue to come down over the next few years, though, as the big players enter the market.

These costs are often offset by the reduced support needed. This can allow you to reduce or eliminate the cost of your current IT vendor or allow existing IT staff to focus on more direct impact on your mission – moving them from a “putting out fires” role to more of an “innovating the way we meet our mission” role.

The costs of virtual desktops are always in the form of monthly service charges rather than upfront equipment purchases. This can be difficult for organizations accustomed to capital grant funding and may require a discussion with your funders and changes in accounting practices. But the controlled monthly expense model may also provide you with opportunities: think about being able to scale up your desktops for the summer camp season (or other busy seasonal needs) and then scaling back down when it’s over! You’ll also be looking at a more regular, consistent expense line in your operating budget, rather than a fluctuating, and sometimes surprising, one.

Where do I Learn More?

Our original NTEN presentation on Virtual Desktops which includes many technical details is available on the conference platform for those registered for the either the conference or the Online NTC. (You can also contact me, and I’m happy to share!

Sam Chenkin
Director of Nonprofit Consulting
Tech Impact
Sam has spent their entire career making helping nonprofits use technology to change the world. Sam works with everyone from nonprofit executives to direct service staff to craft technology strategies and tools that are grounded in impact. They have experience creating change in organizations of a few volunteers through tens of thousands. Sam leads the Consulting group a Tech Impact, a non-profit technology service provider supporting hundreds of nonprofits a year. Just ask Sam if you want to get behind the marketing and understand what a technology can (and can't) do to change the world.