• Insights

Why is VDI as a desktop replacement a non starter for so many law firms?

Kraft Kennedy

5 min read

All Insights

Why is VDI as a desktop replacement a non starter for so many law firms?  I attempt to answer this question pointedly in this post based on my experience over the last 18 months when talking to different law firms about VDI.  However, let me take a step back and frame the question.  While I don’t have actual statistics, I would make the statement that most law firms are still on Windows XP and have thought about or are planning a Windows 7 desktop in the near future.   Invariably, this will result in the firm entertaining a VDI (for desktop replacement) solution for their planned Windows 7 desktop.  The conversation usually doesn’t get far after that….  Why is that?  This post is a look at why VDI environments are non starters in law firms or specifically, why they have not seen the traction that the industry (Citrix, VMware, Gartner) would have you to believe.  I’ll preface once again that VDI might be seeing traction in other industries, however I’ll focus on the five reasons why I feel VDI is not gaining traction in the legal space.

(As an aside, this post is only talking to VDI and in particular as a desktop replacement and not other use cases that may include, but are not limited to training rooms, war rooms, remote access, etc.)

Licensing is confusing and expensive

The finger is first pointed at Microsoft and their ever changing (confusing) licensing scheme for VDI.   A quick browse of the VDI licensing guide details seven scenarios and the licensing implications for using VDI with respect to each.  Does it really need to be this confusing?  Can’t Microsoft license VDI in the same way they license Terminal Servers to simplify this?  The other hindrance here is the essential requirement that an organization purchase Software Assurance for desktops or purchase a VDA for each user/device connecting to a VDI desktop.  This is a cost of about $100 per user/desktop that some firms have not been used to shelling out.  Most of the firms that I have worked with (specifically the SMBs) don’t purchase Software Assurance for Windows desktops as they purchase Windows OEM licenses from Dell, HP, etc.

Let’s now point the finger at Citrix.  I have a law firm client at the moment that currently leverages XenApp as a desktop replacement and owns a XenApp license for every user in the firm.  “Upgrading” these licenses to XenDesktop using Citrix’s trade up calculator results in the firm paying $20,000 (retail) to convert their existing (140) concurrent use XenApp licenses to named user/device XenDesktop licenses.  Should they want to continue to leverage CCU licenses for XenDesktop, they would have to shell out almost $50,000….  ‘Yes’, they are technically now getting XenDesktop and XenApp as part of the upgrade, but I would contend that if Citrix allowed a 1:1 conversion from XenApp CCU licenses to XenDesktop  CCU licenses (and did not give XenApp for “free” as part of it), it would be more palpable for customers (but clearly less profitable for Citrix) to make the conversion.

Citrix and VMware’s Offline VDI solutions are not there yet

Let me start by acknowledging there are less and less scenarios in which a user is “offline” the days.  However there are still scenarios in which users are offline or have a degraded connection that require a functional offline VDI solution.  Specifically, airplanes, spotty WiFi in hotels (my personal pet peeve) and public spots along with low bandwidth/high latency air cards among other scenarios.  VMware’s botched approach with its Type II hypervisor with checking in/out VMs would not meet expectations of law firm users.  Citrix’s approach with its Type I hypervisor, XenClient, is promising but is still a 1.0 product one year later.  The HCL for XenClient is also limited to a subset of machines and the server piece (Synchronizer) of XenClient is also only available for Citrix XenServer, which also makes it a non starter.  The bottom line is that the current offerings by Citrix and VMware are just not good enough from a usability/manageability perspective for law firms to accept it.

Organization politics and delegation of responsibilities

This section is very specific to the legal space as most firms are structured such that there are “Infrastructure” folks and “Applications” folks that work in individual silos.  The Infrastructure folks are primarily responsible for networking, security, messaging, virtualization, shared storage, sometimes Citrix XenApp, etc. while the “Applications” folks are responsible for Windows desktops, user profile management, software distribution, application integration and the overall user experience.  My experience has been that most Applications folks don’t want to touch the Infrastructure, and Infrastructure folks definitely don’t want to deal with anything user facing.  If a firm were to embark on a VDI initiative, it would require tight collaboration between the two different silos as a successful VDI implementation requires careful infrastructure planning as well as application integration for good user experience.  Of course, fighting organizational politics and contention of responsibilities is left up to a CIO, but I see this is another reason why VDI goes nowhere in law firms.

User Experience is not as good as local desktops

Isn’t this what a desktop is all about?  If a firm invests hundreds of thousands of dollars in a new VDI desktop, and the user perception is that it doesn’t perform as well as the traditional desktop it was replacing, is the project a success?  PCoIP and ICA protocols have improved significantly along with some of the HDX and user experience improvement with the latest versions of XenDesktop and View, however designing a VDI desktop to perform as well as a typical local desktop (4 cores/4 GB RAM) with Windows 7 is still difficult to impossible.  Specifically when it comes to media (audio and video) and resource intensive applications.

The local desktop is still required

Ideally, a VDI environment would leverage a BYOPC or Thin Terminal model in which the local corporate desktop is obsolete and not required.  Users would have their own PC and Thin Terminals to access their “managed” corporate VDI desktop in which all their applications were available to them.  Unfortunately, its not that black and white at law firms.  To start, law firms have hundreds of applications and making them all available through a VDI desktop is very challenging even with application virtualization solutions.  Additionally, the local desktop in some way provides an “insurance policy” for firms to allow for local applications (outside the VDI desktop) in some facet.  This could be business applications such as a browser toolbar required for collaboration, or  Adobe PDF reader to view large PDF files a user brings in on a DVD.  These local applications could also be non-business applications such as DVD video software and iTunes.  The point is that law firms have knowledge workers who have an array of IT demands with respect to their applications and user experience and the local desktop would not get replaced
even with VDI.  I am not saying it is impossible, it would just be very hard.

The fact that the local desktop is still required creates multiple management points for IT as they have to not only manage a VDI desktop, they have to continue to maintain, service, patch, etc.
a local Windows desktop.  Citrix and VMware would contend that the capital costs of VDI is not where the savings are, but the operational costs are where all the savings come from.  I am sure there are some fancy marketing charts or Gartner charts that attempt to prove this, but let’s take them at their word.  The challenge here is that most law firm’s would not be replacing their local desktops (with Thin Terminals) should they move forward with a VDI solution.

Honorable Mention

Capital costs for shared storage and virtualization infrastructure, Thin environments with XenApp/Terminal Servers can be built for a fraction of the cost of VDI.


I am going to end this post by saying the success to any VDI environment (or any technology project for that matter) is knowing your use case and business requirements.  This has been drilled into me by my colleague Matt Liebowitz who probably starts every VDI conversation with the phrase “know your use case”.  Too many times technologists lose sight of the business requirements and use cases for a particular technology before attempting to fit a square peg in a round hole.  VDI offers obvious benefits in some areas over a traditional desktop, but it isn’t a one size fits all model.   The use case I focus on in this post (VDI as a desktop replacements) relay my thoughts on why most firms see VDI as an non starter because the challenges associated with implementing VDI outweighs the firm’s business requirements for doing it.  Is VDI a non starter for all law firms?  Absolutely not. There are some scenarios in which a firm’s business requirements and existing desktop circumstances make VDI an attractive and potentially more cost effective approach than a traditional desktop.