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Using desktop management software for physical vs. virtual desktops

Desktop management software is necessary for both physical and virtual desktop environments. IT has different endpoint management tasks for each, such as hardware inventory.

Desktop management software has been a staple for IT pros for decades, and without it, the task of managing large numbers of corporate desktops would be nearly impossible. Today, many organizations are making the transition from physical desktops to virtual desktops. This transition requires organizations to change how they think about endpoint management. Let's discuss some of the ways that common desktop management tasks differ between physical and virtual environments.

Hardware inventory

One of the main features found in most desktop management applications is the ability to perform a desktop hardware inventory. However, desktop management software that is designed specifically for virtual desktops may lack these hardware-inventory capabilities. Obviously, physical hardware still exists in a virtual desktop environment. However, the virtual desktop itself is usually hardware-independent. In other words, when a user establishes a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) session, his computer may attach to any of the available virtual desktops, rather than use the same virtual desktop every time.

Even if an organization configures its VDI deployment so that employees consistently use the same virtual desktops, those machines are still hardware-independent. For instance, users may connect to virtual desktops from their work PCs, home computers or mobile devices. As a result, enterprises may have to perform a desktop hardware inventory separately from the virtual desktop management process or invest in desktop management software that works for both physical and virtual desktops.

Software deployment

Another key feature that is typically found in desktop management software is a method for deploying applications. The need for application deployment does not go away simply because an organization has switched to a virtual desktop environment.

Hard disk space is not as much of a concern in a physical desktop environment as opposed to a virtual desktop environment. The average physical desktop purchased today typically includes at least half a terabyte of storage space. In contrast, virtual desktops share a finite pool of storage space. Because of this, virtual desktop administrators must make efficient use of the available storage. This sometimes means that administrators rely more on application virtualization and application streaming than on traditional application installation.

Regardless of whether organizations choose to deploy applications directly onto their virtual desktops or stream applications to the users, organizations must still consider how they will perform the patch management process. Operating system patches must be deployed directly to the virtual desktop. If applications are being streamed to the virtual desktops, then the process used for patching applications must work with the software used for packaging and streaming the applications.


Another feature that is commonly found in desktop management software is an alerting mechanism. In a physical environment, the desktop management software might generate alerts related to things like hardware problems or a lack of hard disk space.

Alerting is still important when it comes to managing virtual desktops, but the nature of the alerts changes. In a virtual desktop environment, alerting needs to focus heavily on the end-user experience. For example, if sessions are encountering a high degree of latency, that delay can harm the end-user experience. Ideally, the VDI management tool should send an alert to the administrator about the condition and its cause.

The server hardware that is used to host the virtual desktops should also be monitored so that alerts can be generated for conditions that require attention. For example, if a host server cluster node fails, an alert should be generated. Likewise, the storage pool should be monitored and administrators should be notified if the pool begins running low on space.

Configuration tasks

In physical environments, the desktop management software can often be used to make configuration changes to the desktops. For example, the desktop management software might be used to remotely configure security policies, power management policies or display resolution. The same approach can be used in a virtual desktop environment, but it may be unnecessary.

Virtual desktops are normally created from "golden images." A golden image is an approved configuration that can be converted into virtual desktops. Rather than try to manage each individual virtual desktop, some organizations prefer to make configuration changes directly to the golden images and then use them to replace each virtual desktop on an as-needed basis.

As you can see, there are a number of differences between how physical desktops and virtual desktops might be managed. Although software that is designed for physical desktop management can sometimes be used for virtual desktop management, you will usually get a better end-user experience if you use endpoint management software that is specifically designed for virtual desktop environments.

Brien Posey
is an eight-time Microsoft MVP with two decades of IT experience. Before becoming a freelance technical writer, Posey worked as a CIO for a national chain of hospitals and health care facilities. He has also served as a network administrator at some of the nation's largest insurance companies and for the U.S. Department of Defense at Fort Knox.

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