Virtual desktop trials soar as technology improves

Better technology has sparked vigorous virtual desktop proof-of-concept activity. But will trial spur adoption? Gartner predicts end-user uptake to reach 5 million this year.

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Industry pundits said 2010 would be the year of the virtual desktop proof-of-concept trial, and so far, the vision looks to be coming true in a big way.

With desktops a commodity and IT shops under pressure to economize, enterprises have picked spots to test virtual desktops. Many have also considered remaking their corporate infrastructures to accommodate the high-bandwidth requirements of some applications running on thin clients, and they have begun to look into hosted desktops.

The level of interest [in desktop virtualization] is nothing short of amazing.

Mark Margevicius,
Gartner Inc. research director

One catalyst of this is the migration to Windows 7, for which IT shops have weighed the value of hosting versus that of keeping physical PCs on the premises. Better products on the market have also spurred virtual desktop trials.

"The level of interest is nothing short of amazing," said Mark Margevicius, a research director at consulting firm Gartner Inc. "Even if only a small percentage [of enterprises virtualize their desktops], the market is huge. PCs are everywhere."

"The reality is it won't get anywhere near global replacement, but for the right type of people, it could be a good fit," he added.

Though off to a sluggish start, the growth of desktop virtualization will soon explode if trials translate into adoption. According to Gartner studies, in 2009, virtualized seats worldwide were roughly 1.2 million to 1.5 million, an increase from about 500,000 in the beginning of the year.

The number of seats will jump to between 4 million and 5 million by the end of this year, Margevicius said. By the end of 2013-2014, he predicted, the market will reach about 50 million end users.

Proof-of-concept trials have cropped up in companies of all sizes. One consultant said his clients include a 12,000-seat hospital considering thin clients and a bank testing various sorts of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) technology.

For ROI: Thin clients, yes; VDI, not so much
Many of these companies are trying to dodge a hardware refresh; their strategy is that they might spend less -- say, $300 on a terminal server or a dumb terminal -- by using a light client, such as Windows Fundamentals, said Bernie Klinder, a managing consultant at Atlanta-based Blue Chip Consulting Group LLC.

With virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI), though, a quick return on investment (ROI) cannot be assumed. Often, as in the case of VDI deployments where individual VMs live on a server, storage costs on the back end make a potential VDI installation too expensive. Vendors pushing VDI have looked to fit a solution to a problem rather than identified a problem and tried to find a solution, Klinder said.

But some IT shops can get substantial ROI by using the right virtual desktop technology and adjusting expectations about what these desktop should deliver. For example, John Bowden, CIO at Lifetime Products Inc., a Clearfield, Utah-based manufacturer, has already migrated 200 end users from Windows XP to Windows 7 using virtual blade servers in the company's data center.

The company wanted its operations in China to use the same virtual machines that were used by employees in the U.S. It also improved network latency by using Hewlett-Packard's Remote Graphics Software (RGS) protocol and servers in addition to Microsoft's App-V for application delivery.

For Lifetime Products, initial ROI was easy to measure. The company replaced 1,000 desktops with Windows 7 but installed only 750 machines. The other bonus is that there was no need to build out an infrastructure in China, other than to provide end users with a thin client.The company uses Windows roaming user profiles to move profiles and documents from blade to blade, Bowden said.

Removing the 'personal' from the PC
Bowden said he thinks the hurdles in the adoption of virtual desktops have more to do with corporate culture than with technology. "To get to this level, you have to eliminate the concept of the PC and make it a corporate PC," he said. "[End users] are giving up a home computer experience. They can't do MP3s and other things that are distractions. We have to stick with strong standards."

Politically and culturally, there is a lot of pressure not to cut the personal out of the PC. But virtual desktops are good for the manufacturing business, which tracks performance of employees based on the number of products manufactured. Another major benefit from virtualization, according to Bowden, is that it can keep intellectual property locked down in Utah.

Still, without individual PCs, end users may not be happy. "Well, we probably have fun screen savers," he said.

Virtual desktop serves more use cases
One reason IT shops are willing to start trials now is because products have improved. For example, just a few years ago, slow graphics performance on a WAN was a bigger issue than it is today. But vendors have worked on upgrading old protocols that were never built to handle heavy graphics.

For example, VMware's View 4 performance was poor but has since improved with the adoption of the Teradici PC-over-IP protocol last fall, said one expert. And Teradici now offers a software technology rather than a chip for both client and server.

"Now this is the first implementation of VMware View I would have taken seriously," said David Payne, an independent virtualization analyst based in Minneapolis. "In the past, [View] did not do the job."

With every advance in features and performance quality, View has increased the number of end users who can be served by desktop virtualization, Payne said. "PC-over-IP is a much better multimedia experience."

Experts said the vendors receiving the most interest are those that sell complete packages. Citrix Systems' XenDesktop, VMware View and Quest Software's Workspace (formerly Provision Networks technology) are three examples.

Blue Chip Consulting's Klinder said he sees a lot of mixing and matching of technologies. He recommended that customers first decide which problem they want to solve before choosing a product or an approach to a virtual desktop.

Apart from the technology, licensing costs are still a problem for many customers. Microsoft has said it will revisit its licensing model later this year and make some movement toward per-user, versus per-device, pricing.

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