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VDI: Balancing the Efficiencies and Challenges of the New Network

The factors enterprise IT departments must consider when evaluating if and when to bring on a VDI solution

Enterprise IT has experienced a rapid evolution over the past few years. Cloud has revolutionized storage and brought with it a host of new and emerging information security challenges. Consumer adoption of mobile technology has forced enterprise networks to operate in a multi-platform environment in which the technology is largely selected, procured, and controlled without the advice or consent of IT. Of the many lessons learned in recent years, perhaps the most crucial is that IT must take a proactive approach to adopting emerging technologies, rather than being forced to react to and mitigate the inevitable fire drills. Of the transformative technologies now gaining traction in the enterprise, Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI) has stayed relatively under the radar, but is nonetheless poised to play an integral role in the ongoing IT evolution. This article will discuss the benefits of integrating VDI into the new data center, and the factors enterprise IT departments must consider when evaluating if and when to bring on a VDI solution.

While the origins of virtualization reside in the drive for server consolidation, VDI is fast becoming a staple in the new data center. Today's evolving network takes virtualization well beyond servers to a means of centralizing IT, beginning with desktop PCs and expanding to encompass the wireless computing devices proliferating throughout the enterprise, including smartphones and tablets. The expansive adoption is evident in the numbers. According to a report published in September 2012 by VisionGain titled "The Cloud-Based Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Market 2012-2017,"the VDI market was expected to grow to $11.2 billion by the end of 2012.

The advantages of VDI, particularly for large enterprises, are clear. For one, VDI solutions reduce desktop support and management costs by bringing a wide array of devices and operating systems into a single control solution. For another, they also enable energy saving and green initiatives by lower overall energy requirements of virtual desktops. Moreover, VDI offers business continuity and disaster recovery capabilities as well as a means to secure data in the data center, which is paramount when meeting compliance and security regulations.

Progressive IT departments at colleges, law firms and retail establishments have quickly caught on to the potential of VDI to radically streamline enterprise networking. The business and technical efficiencies involved with VDI are relatively simple and straightforward in exchange for the significant improvements VDI can deliver to network manageability, security and energy efficiency.

Before an enterprise undertakes the transformation to VDI, however, data center managers must understand the potential network impact from a performance standpoint, while maintaining key criteria such as cost savings, delivery of multiple converged services, and power efficiency.

VDI Deployments and Network Security
Network security is of paramount importance in today's business environment, and the emergence of VDI in the network has enhanced today's security, namely network identity, by simplifying, centralizing and driving security within the network rather than the PC OS. Security for yesterday's network meant complex "application layer" elements of sign-on security such as LDAP directories, strong authentication, and Single Sign-On (SSO) systems. With the VDI network, traditional operating systems are eliminated, but IT must still require and implement user log on, secure policies, visibility and monitoring in order to ensure security across the network.

The Energy Efficient Network
The amount of energy consumed by data centers is enormous, and growing in tandem with the burgeoning amounts of electronic data being created and stored by enterprises the world over. At the same time, enterprises are increasingly called to task to demonstrate their Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), one aspect of which is reducing their carbon footprint. The efficiency of the networking equipment deployed therefore directly impacts a data center's ‘green' credentials. As energy costs rise and CSR gains public and government mindshare, reducing energy consumption has become a focal point for many enterprises, and VDI plays an integral role in this process. By centralizing resources and bringing in much higher speeds at the port level, VDI significantly improves the energy efficiency of the network. Rather than deploying multiple tiers and distributed Gigabit Ethernet LANs, suddenly the horsepower is consolidated into a single core layer providing the bandwidth necessary for all VDI connections. This allows much higher density 10 Gigabit Ethernet port modules on chassis type switches to easily collapse all traffic into just a few network switches. VDI implementations also contribute to energy savings at the device level. By enabling IT to easily manage smartphones and tablets operating on multiple platforms, energy-gobbling desktops can be replaced with these smaller, more energy efficient mobile devices. In the end, VDI is highly efficient, more powerful and easier for IT to manage.

Converging Voice and Video for VDI Deployments
Once the considerations for bandwidth and system centralization have been addressed, the issue of carrying converged media (mixed voice, video and data) comes to the fore. Just like traditional networks, the VDI network backbone still must handle convergence flawlessly so that all users have a consistent, predictable experience. Critical activities such as IP phone calls and collaboration, e-learning activities using IP video, customer call centers, to name but a few, all depend on the network for a seamless, quality experience, and when implementing a VDI solution, IT must ensure that this remains and priority. In order to ensure this consistency and predictability, the network has to not only be equipped with 10 Gigabit and Gigabit to the edge, it also needs the intelligence, Quality of Service (QoS) and ultra-low latency switching, to seamlessly deliver voice and video traffic to users based on predetermined priorities.

Maintaining and Enhancing Security for Enterprise VDI Deployments
As enterprise networks increasingly adopt virtualization technology, there is a growing demand on IT to successfully meet the networking challenges posed by a highly dynamic virtual environment. On the one hand, VDI is a superior tool enabling users to access the network via multiple mobile and computing devices operating on multiple platforms and operating systems. On the other, this diversified access creates an environment in which policy and identity management are paramount network security considerations since users can connect to the data center from any location using a variety of devices. Just as old networks were unable to handle the growing number of connecting devices, the access management and lack of identity features with old networks won't be up to par in the new virtual landscape.

Recognizing this security challenge, more and more secure government facilities are using advanced identity management to ensure compliance and security when using VDI, setting the stage for similar deployments in the private sector with large mobile workforces. Identity-aware networking, defined by Enterprise Strategy Group as "a policy-based network architecture that understands and acts upon the identity and location of users and devices," will be the solution du jour for private sector business looking to securely deploy VDI.

Identity-aware networking is an integration effort where the network gathers information from multiple existing sources then enables IT managers to use this data to build and enforce access policies. The best-of-breed network has the intelligence to dynamically collect and update information about users, devices, and location as the users connect to the VDI infrastructure and just as important, enforce policies once they are on the network. The business, regulatory compliance, and security ROI benefits available with the identity-aware network become the new norm, carrying the burden away from those that had to maintain application-layer security.

Network-based identity for VDI is associated with things like IP and MAC addresses, VLAN tags, and subnets that play a role in device authentication, VPNs, and IPSEC. With VDI, network layer security takes over. It is based on a number of inputs, including the user-id and role of the user, specific device characteristics and capabilities, and user/device location. Identity-aware networking wants to know if the user is logging on from a trusted or untrusted network, or whether a user is accessing the network from a wired port or over Wi-Fi. Furthermore, network access policies may need to change from one location within a facility to the next.

With most deployments, the IT department will strive to meet the needs of varying mobile users and disparate devices. At the network level, more granular network access policies based upon user roles, device types, and physical locations are required. The network then has to scale bandwidth, handle converged communications appropriately and bring network layer security policy that is not tied to any single device or application.

There are significant advantages to VDI, including a more centralized streamlined, and energy efficient network, but before implementing VDI, enterprise IT must ensure that the necessary protocols are in place to preserve network security in this new virtual environment. VDI demands an identity approach and a more aware network in order to satisfy security and compliance requirements. Only when data center managers closely examine the network's role in meeting key criteria such as cost savings, power efficiency, user and device identity, and ease-of-use can VDI truly progress towards becoming a new norm in computing.

More Stories By Sameer Mohile

Sameer Mohile is a senior software product manager at Extreme Networks where he leads the product direction and strategic planning for Data Center and Mobile Backhaul markets. He has over 12+ years of expertise in the networking and collaboration industry and is certified Agile Product Owner with deep experience leading cross-functional teams. Prior to his position at Extreme Networks, Sameer held positions as marketing product manager and technical marketing engineer at Cisco Systems. He holds a Masters in Computer Networking from North Carolina State University and an MBA with a specialization in product marketing from the University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School.

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