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Finding a fit for virtual desktops in your firm

Computer users typically keep the software and data they use on their computers. About five years ago, Will Davidson LLP began to access both software and data located on company servers using virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). Partner Paul Cahill rebels against this change to this day.

Virtual desktop infrastructure basics

He understands the technology. VDI helps organizations that want to better manage technology and data. In a traditional VDI setup, employees “tunnel into” inside-the-firewall servers that host both their applications and data. Neither resides on individual computers.

It’s decades-old technology. In the 1990s, Nick Nouri helped install Citrix so a client could make its accounting system work across New York, Chicago and California offices. Nouri, president of Vancouver-based Compunet Infotech Inc., claims the client saved seven figures using VDI, and he became convinced “the sky is the limit with this technology, for many types of companies and applications.”

VDI benefits

Using VDI, staff can access their “desktops” in the office from wherever they are, a boon for highly mobile workforces. Keeping all company data on one server, or set of servers, makes backing it up easier than if it were to reside on numerous different devices.

Nouri’s firm hosts customer VDI environments (a.k.a. “private clouds”) in secure “server farms.” Not all clients buy into this structure 100 per cent, but Nouri is accommodating. He offered one customer a “reverse backup” service: “We installed a small server in their office that keeps a copy of all the company’s data files in their private cloud, to give them peace of mind,” he says. (After a year, the client was confident enough in its private cloud that Compunet was asked to remove the server.)

VDI also simplifies the servicing of workstations at multiple locations, greatly reducing travel for IT staff.

“[Our IT contractor] was finding it difficult and frustrating to service individual workstations,” Cahill says, noting that his firm maintains 10 locations scattered throughout south-central Ontario. “Even people working in the office use Microsoft Remote Desktop Connection,” he adds.

VDI shortcomings

Cahill admits to being in the minority: “I’m one of the few people in the firm who refuses to use remote desktop, much to the chagrin of my IT guy.”

Speed concerns

VDI works reasonably well, he admits, until he needs to work with larger types of files like images, sound and videos. That’s when performance suffers. “People end up closing their remote desktops, somehow transferring the files to their local desktops, looking at the information there,” he explains. “We no longer had one system.”

His sorest point is Will Davidson’s document management solution. He expects to scroll quickly through PDFs, no matter how large, using this system. “You’d see the screen slowing down like old-school downloads from 1990s modems,” Cahill says.

Cahill has developed workarounds. He accesses resources on the server via network drives. He manually connected network printers to his local desktop. “I use Dropbox to share documents with experts when I investigate medical malpractice cases,” he says, noting that his documents include diagnostic images and videos. “You can’t use [the firm’s document management system] for radiographs,” he notes.

Cahill accepts the system administrator’s security concerns when he notes that employees can’t simply install new software. The tech-savvy Cahill chafes at these restrictions.

Lack of connectivity

Working on an aircraft and other places devoid of Internet connections might not be possible. Even tethering to cellular modems like those in modern smartphones isn’t always feasible.

Nouri admits that if you buy into full VDI, business flights might be time away from the office, like it or not.

Cloud computing as VDI

There’s another way to derive many of the benefits of VDI without using VDI. Wortzmans, a consultancy specializing in e-discovery, information governance and digital information management, has been evaluating different ways to better manage documents.

Chuck Rothman lists the firm’s priorities as security, reliability and productivity. “Speed is a big concern,” says Wortzmans’ director of e-discovery services. “It’s no longer just speed to a server down the hall, but to servers in other parts of the city, or in another city.”

They concluded VDI isn’t cost-effective for a firm as small as theirs. “Given what’s available now through the cloud, it doesn’t make economic sense,” Rothman says.

When Microsoft activated servers on Canadian soil, the firm began migrating Office 365 and SharePoint to Microsoft’s cloud-based services. They had tested these services prior to making the jump. “We found that we will be able to work the same way that we work now,” Rothman says.

He adds that Office 365 lets him work offline and syncs with the server when he gets back online. SharePoint behaves the same way. (Rothman admits he has no access to his firm’s cloud-based e-discovery system without an Internet connection.)

Rothman derides arguments against cloud computing, wryly noting that Microsoft probably spends more on security and reliable service than his 10-workstation firm does.

He also takes comfort in a pro-privacy court case decision. U.S. law enforcement officials sought e-mails stored by Microsoft in Ireland. Microsoft challenged the decision. Other tech titans and the country of Ireland filed briefs in support of Microsoft’s challenge, and the subpoena was quashed. “The court says the U.S. can’t get data that isn’t stored in the U.S.” Rothman says. “That doesn’t stop the Canadian government from getting our data,” he adds.

Rothman takes exception to the implied meaning of “outside the firewall” as outside a firm’s control. He notes that data on Microsoft’s servers is encrypted and only accessible to Wortzmans staff.

VDI and cloud-based systems (especially those that have migrated to HTML5) don’t often restrict users to specific browsers, or even operating systems. Rothman, for instance, plans to switch his work computer to a Mac.

VDI-desktop hybrids the norm

Few firms go all-VDI, or all-cloud. For instance, Wortzmans’ accounting system still resides on an internal server since it doesn’t feature a cloud option.

But Nouri insists most off-the-shelf software is VDI-compatible. While he has run into issues getting older, more customized software to work properly in a virtual desktop environment, “software vendors understand the market is adopting thin clients, remote desktop environments,” Nouri says.

This article originally published in Lawyers Weekly Magazine. To view the print version, click here.