Virtualization: The Future of Work

By Dave Zielinski Dec 2, 2014
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Use of desktop virtualization technology has long been one of the most effective ways to keep sensitive corporate data secure in bring-your-own-device (BYOD) environments. But for human resource information technology (HRIT) professionals, virtualization can bring additional benefits, including adding new efficiencies to employee onboarding or offboarding processes and enabling easier delivery of software upgrades or security patches.

While a mature technology, virtualization continues to evolve in the form of new options like workspace-as-a-service (WAAS) platforms. WAAS uses a hosted model to help information technology leaders manage the growing diversity of mobile devices and applications used in the workplace in a more secure and centralized fashion.

Virtualization Defined

Virtualization has many forms, but a common use is known as virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI). With VDI, a computer’s operating system, applications or data are separated from the physical device used to access those tools.Employees using a virtualized desktop log onto a server residing in their organization’s data center or the data center of an industry vendor such as VMware or Citrix.What they see looks and operates much like the desktop on their physical device.

Client-hosted desktop virtualization, on the other hand, doesn’t depend on a network connection. It enables employees to run the company’s applications “on top of” their device’s operating system.

Most importantly for HRIT leaders, either version of the technology gives employees the ability to access company data in a secure way, while keeping personal data on laptops or mobile devices separate and private.

Robert Young, a research manager with IDC, a market intelligence and advisory firm in Framingham, Mass., said virtualization also can benefit HR in onboarding scenarios or when overseeing an employee’s departure from an organization.

The ability to quickly launch virtual desktops for newly arriving employees or contractors can increase their time-to-productivity and create positive first impressions.

When employees are terminated or leave an organization, virtualization reduces the odds of their taking sensitive corporate data or intellectual property with them on laptops or other devices as they depart.

“With virtualization, no data is stored locally on computers, so you just cut off access to the virtual desktop when someone leaves the company,” Young said.

ROI on Virtualization

Companies invest in virtualization technology for many reasons, but cost savings usually isn’t at the top of the list. A bigger driver is keeping proprietary data secure, given the risks associated with BYOD programs, as well as creating new efficiencies through centralized IT management of virtualized devices.

“If someone in a company is traveling to a country where privacy laws are different or there’s higher risk of intellectual property being stolen, keeping data safe and locked away in a data center and only providing access through virtualization is a good security strategy,” said David Johnson, a principal analyst with Forrester Research. “It also removes the fear that employees often have of making a mistake and losing proprietary data.”

Virtualization technologies played a big role in the BYOD program at Sybase, said Jim Swartz, former chief information officer at the California-based software provider, an SAP company. One of the concerns Swartz had before launching the BYOD initiative was how company data would mix with employees’ personal information on laptops or mobile devices.

“That concern went away with our virtualized desktops,” Swartz said. “With our BYOD program, access to company information and intellectual property was only through the virtual tool-set,” meaning that information was only available through the data center.

How Sybase implemented virtualization depended on departmental needs; engineering used one type of solution while HR and finance used another. “There are different drivers for using virtualization, and enhancing security was a big one for us,” Swartz said. “The return on investment (ROI) is different depending on which virtualization technology you choose and how you apply it.”

Sybase managers routinely conducted HR transactions like approving job requisitions or processing performance reviews from their smartphones or tablets. But access to customer or other company data was only available through secure data centers.

One exception to that rule were salespeople, who were allowed to keep encrypted data on their devices for sales presentations in the field. “It’s easier to control those exceptions than it is to give everyone access to corporate information,” Swartz said.

Another ROI in virtualization is centralized management of the proliferating number of devices and applications used in organizations.

“When you have all of your desktops running in one place, you don’t have to worry about sending out distributed security patches over a local area network, and rollouts and upgrades of software applications become faster and easier,” Johnson said.

Workspace-as-a-service (WAAS)

A new virtualization service gaining traction is WAAS, also known as desktop-as-a-service. WAAS offers companies a suite of virtualized tools—desktops, applications, mobile device management or content management—in a hosted or public cloud environment. Organizations no longer have to invest in new hardware or allocate internal IT resources to system administration.

“Workspace-as-a-service is about having an infrastructure that protects your data, no matter where it is stored or distributed across the plethora of devices used in companies today,” said IDC’s Young. “It also allows employees to have a consistent user experience regardless if they’re using a laptop, phone or tablet.” Given the technology’s recent growth, IDC has begun reporting on WAAS as its own market.

Such virtualization technologies aren’t without their drawbacks. Experts say it’s important to test their user-friendliness in real-world scenarios before making investments.

For example, Johnson said employees trying to watch a corporate video or use a graphics-intensive application can have a less-than-optimal experience if the virtualization technology doesn’t include an adequate graphics processing unit, something found in most physical computers.

Balancing Security with Productivity

When implementing virtualization, Johnson said it’s important to balance the need for data security and cost control with enabling employees to work in ways that maximize their productivity and performance. High productivity requires autonomy, purpose and mastery, he said, and employees’ technology preferences play a role in that.

“It’s easy to go too far in the quest for security,” Johnson said. “We would like to see IT leaders work more closely with HR to truly understand how technology impacts employee motivation and performance.”

Dave Zielinski is a freelance business journalist in Minneapolis.​

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