Why every administrator needs a virtual laptop

You know the advantages virtualization brings to servers, so why not reap the same rewards by creating a virtual copy of your laptop?

After-hours support is a fact of life most IT personnel have to live with. Late night calls on the weekends have us remoting in or hovering over our laptops troubleshooting the problem. Our desktops and laptops become our lifeline to keep us connected and effective in troubleshooting the daily issues. We use them to run our tools, install and test new software and, of course, answer our overflowing email inbox. In my years, I have seen and been victim to my share of hardware and software failures. While (most) of my data has always been on the network or backed up, that was never the most troubling issue. The time-consuming part was always rebuilding my desktops with all of the software I needed to manage the growing infrastructure.

Recreating an administrator's desktop or laptop is a time-consuming effort that feels more like a scavenger hunt. Administrators have been making copies of software and burning ISO images all in an attempt to address this issue. However, as virtual administrators, the solution has been hiding in plain sight all along: Simply perform a physical to virtual migration of your desktop or laptop. Then, you can have a copy of your desktop and the critical applications in an environment that is not as affected by hardware failures. Of course VMs are not free, and there may be policies in place that will we require you to justify your decision. But, by laying out a few examples about how this approach could save you time, it's easy to justify the relatively small cost of a virtual laptop.

Software installs -- Over the years, you start to collect multiple Java versions for different applications or Web browsers. Each management tool often requires its own version and to add to it you have ActiveX plug-ins for others along with .Net Framework. Not to mention the entire collection of Web links for multiple browsers going to different administrative tools. Like most well-timed failures, inevitably your system will crash on a Monday morning during an outage -- Murphy’s Law. Will your users or bosses want to wait that additional time while you install the tools you need to address the issues?

Power outages -- Most data centers have uninterruptable power supplies and generators to provide power in the event of a main power loss. In many offices the cubicles do not share that same benefit because of the cost and complexity. If your data center is onsite, it is possible to access systems directly, but in a virtualized environment, accessing the hypervisor doesn’t get you very far with being able to access the guests. You could try to use Remote Desktop Protocol (RDP), which will allow you to access your servers, but most will not have the management tools you need unless you install them -- a process you wouldn't want to do on a production server. Instead, a simple RDP session from any Windows server to your virtualized desktop that has everything you need can save you precious time during a crisis.

Portability (for non-laptop users) -- It is common knowledge that if anything is going to break it will happen when you’re out of the office. The process of using a VPN to access your network and connect to your desktop has been a favorite method for many administrators. While it works OK, it is bandwidth dependent and waiting on screen refreshes is frustrating at best. Why not make a copy of your virtual desktop for home? Then you can run it inside VMware Workstation or Fusion and get the performance you want instead of waiting for your screen to refresh.

Common support platform -- Besides just having personalized desktops you can also create a common desktop that all administrators could use to provide support. Legacy applications may require certain versions of Java or .Net that are no longer supported by a newer OS. Having dedicated virtual support machines means all of your administrators can have access to the tools they need for support requests without trying to get legacy tools running on newer or unsupported operating systems.

Snapshots and clones -- One of the staples for virtualization is the ability to undo changes to a VM if an upgrade or software installation goes wrong. Why should that ability be reserved to just servers? Cloning is also another case reserved for the servers. Isn’t protecting the tools that support a data center just as paramount to the data center itself?

While the needs of an administrator to have a virtual laptop are extensive, some guidelines should be followed. The resource usage from the physical desktop to the virtual desktop will need to be trimmed down. If your desktop has four or eight cores, your virtual laptop should have a maximum of two. The same goes for memory; trim down the eight gigabytes (or more) of memory down to four or six gigabytes. Reducing the drive size to smallest footprint will also help. Efficient usage of the resources will help to ensure there are little to no concerns with taking up valuable resources for what is essentially a clone of your existing machine. However, this is a very important duplicate in times of crisis, so exercise common sense when deploying.

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