The rise of the virtual desktop

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The rise of the virtual desktop

The old way: buy a computer for everyone and software to go on that computer. The new way: use virtual desktops to send an image of one centrally-controlled computer to everyone, no matter how old or new their desktop machine. Is this the future for small business?

The focus of this article, Austbrokers, isn't itself a small business - it's ASX-listed and reported a $14 million profit for the second half of 2014 - but its structure provides an illustration of how virtual desktops can work for small businesses.

Austbrokers is a group of more than 70 insurance brokers and underwriters where the local partners manage their own businesses on a day-to-day basis while benefiting from the advantages of scale. The company calls it the 'owner-driver' model.

The company operates as more than 100 businesses in more than 250 locations around the country but mostly on the east coast.

One way the advantages of scale are realised is through centrally managed remote desktops. Rather than having to manage their own PCs locally, most of the businesses connect to virtual desktops that run on Interactive's infrastructure-as-a-service at its NSW data centre, with a backup site at an unspecified location.

Austbrokers uses Citrix software for this purpose. CIO Theo Stevens said the company wanted a strategic partner that would allow it to innovate and operate at a low cost. Furthermore, Citrix delivers "a desktop experience across multiple devices" with a consistency that simplifies training and documentation.

Virtual desktops can be delivered to conventional desktop or notebook PCs, thin clients, tablets and even smartphones. They are particularly useful where employees use their own devices for work purposes, as they require the installation of just one program on the device and business data stays in the data centre, reducing the risks associated with loss or theft.

All of the 40+ applications used at Austbrokers are delivered through virtual desktops, including the broking system and Microsoft Office. A single system image is deployed to 1500 users, dramatically simplifying systems management and support.

Without Citrix, we would have to employ more service desk and on-site support staff, Stevens said. "That would definitely drive our costs up" and the inconsistent environments at different sites would be "a compounding headache."

The group has more than 2500 employees in all. While some of the larger constituents currently look after their own IT, a number of them are considering a switch to the centrally managed system.

One of the benefits of working with Citrix is that it either acquires or works closely with other vendors in order to deliver capabilities required by customers, said Stevens, and that saves Austbrokers from having to do its own R&D to integrate different products. For example, Citrix ShareFile provides a secure way of sharing documents (as opposed to attaching them to emails or using Dropbox), and it works well with the data loss prevention measures taken by the company.

Most small businesses aren't big enough to consider running their own virtual desktops, but a number of companies including CloudCentral Enspire  and IT Easy offer virtual desktops as a service, often using Citrix products.

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