Desktop support and desktops – have we made them too complicated?

by James Rankin


Home » Articles and insights » Desktop support and desktops – have we made them too complicated?

Once upon a time, desktop support was the entry-level echelon of the IT infrastructure ladder. The mapping of drives, checking of cables, and maintenance of printers was considered to be the perfect area for junior staff to cut their information technology teeth. Career progression moved you further towards the “back” of the infrastructure, graduating into the upkeep of servers, databases, messaging systems, directory services, backups, and the like.

They were ideally suited to less experienced staff for a few reasons. At the time, the Windows operating system wasn’t really that far into being a true multi-user client, and features on the desktop were much less advanced and integrated compared to the present day. Applications usually came from within small subsets, and invariably these were natively installed or deployed as part of the image itself.

Most importantly, users couldn’t really do much with their systems besides using the business applications that they were presented with, so the desktop, and desktop support in general, was a predictable, analogous environment in which problems could be usually solved simply and with a minimum of overhead.

Of course, times change.


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Desktop support in the modern age

The modern desktop environment has changed radically. Windows itself has evolved by degrees, arming even its own simple application launcher – the Start Menu – with changes like Libraries, Jump Lists, Pinned Items, and now Live Tiles. Applications are wide-ranging and diverse, and deployed to desktops in many different ways, with “legacy” installs, virtualized installs, layered installs and “Modern” UWP installs all commonplace on the present-day Windows endpoint.

Desktops are far more capable machines, able to play media, browse websites, run collaboration tools, and integrate themselves far more into workplace processes than they ever could previously. Add-ons, extensions, and many other features within applications themselves only add to the complexity level. Throw in virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), management of profiles, suites of deployment tools, and everything else into the desktop support mix and you can see that the modern desktop has become a very far cry from the simple predictable beast of fifteen to twenty years ago.

Trying to bring all of this change together in a desktop environment that users can easily adapt to has forced many companies to put together an incredibly complicated infrastructure that runs the modern desktop. Here’s an example of the stack of technologies in use at one client site where I worked, simply to deliver the user’s Windows desktop experience:

  • Windows 7 OS
  • SCCM for image and application deployment
  • App-V for application isolation
  • AppSense for user environment management and device control
  • Citrix XenApp for legacy applications
  • F5 for load balancing of infrastructure delivery components
  • Citrix Provisioning Server for streaming of virtual desktops
  • Citrix ShareFile for data management
  • Various other scripts and policies tied into Active Directory

Why the change?

Why was it necessary for the desktop to become such a complicated piece of the enterprise equation?

User expectations drive a lot of this. The proliferation of devices within the home and upon the person has radically changed what the typical end-user expects in terms of features, flexibility, and performance. The monolithic desktop of the past cannot accommodate these requirements and so a fluid, multi-layered endpoint is what is needed.

But of course, IT departments have other obligations to satisfy as well as the demands of the users – security, budgetary, compliance, monitoring, and many more. Adapting this multi-layered endpoint to fit into these other requirements only breeds more complexity still.

From a security perspective alone, it’s not uncommon to see antivirus, HIPS, web security and application management tools all bundled together onto the desktops themselves. And this plethora of agent-based software puts more strain onto performance which then necessitates more tweaks and modifications to compensate for it. Before long, we’ve introduced a level of difficulty to what was traditionally the simplest part of the enterprise environment which probably far outweighs that in possibly any other area.

Management of desktops (and desktop support in general) when they’re constructed in this fashion, can no longer be done by first-line support or junior, inexperienced staff. You need third-line engineers to handle it – and sometimes, particularly so in the example above – they need very specific, and often quite expensive, skill sets.

But what further compounds the entire issue is that often management still views “desktop support” as simple. It’s the traditional perception, and the need to now spend vast amounts of money on skilled resources to run what they have always viewed as a first-line job is difficult for them to accept. This outdated attitude is much more common than you’d expect, and extends into other areas too – monitoring of client endpoints is woefully poor, in my experience, and management often insist that any alerting is focused on back-end components such as networks, storage and databases instead.

Breaking the cycle

So how can we break this cycle of complexity that a lot of people find themselves stuck in?

You can attack it in three major ways.

Firstly, plan for simplicity and sustainability in the technologies you adopt. I’ve seen clients who have introduced major layers of complexity to their environments just to satisfy business demands for one specific application. Planning in this way means using the 80-20 rule where appropriate – if you’ve virtualized 80% of your applications, for instance, don’t add extra levels of complexity just so you can virtualize the other 20% as well. Keep a steady eye on the technologies being used in the environment and make sure they don’t bring huge overheads in terms of education and skills.

Cloud solutions and SaaS applications can remove some of the overhead by handing over operational duties to an external provider. There are many questions that this sort of approach brings – too many to go into here! – but if suitable, using cloud hosting and SaaS applications can reduce the complexity of the environment quite markedly. Services that don’t require dial-tone availability such as email and instant messaging can be shifted to cloud providers without a huge amount of effort.

And finally, everyone needs to wake up to the fact that desktops have changed, business has changed, and users have changed. Focusing on back-end infrastructure as the primary consideration in any IT department has to stop – the user’s desktop environment is equally as important in the modern world, and it should no longer be thought of as merely the preserve of first-line support.

We haven’t made desktops too complicated, but the world of IT has become much more complicated. Because of this, we’ve often put together solutions for desktop environments that have tried to manage this new world in old-fashioned ways. And that is where the level of complexity has risen to what are, in some cases, almost unsustainable levels. But with careful planning and an awareness of sustainability when preparing for your next wave of IT transformation, you can put together an environment that delivers on the user’s needs without becoming a veritable hydra from a support perspective.

James Rankin

James Rankin

James is an independent consultant specializing in user and application virtualization technologies. When not working on projects for customers across the globe, he can be found writing technical articles, blogging, and speaking at conferences and user groups. He regularly writes for Source One Technology in Milwaukee.

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