Virtual desktops in 2012: It's all about the apps

In 2012, VDI will be just one way to deliver desktops. IT pros will use various forms of desktop virtualization to deliver enterprise apps to mobile end users.

VDI won't displace PCs in 2012 or any other year. It has been, and will remain just one of many options for IT pros to deliver applications to remote desktops.

In fact, 2012 will be a year where IT shops will be consumed with the task of delivering applications to iPads, smartphones and other mobile devices. IT pros will likely use various forms of desktop virtualization -- including cloud-hosted virtual desktops and server-hosted VDI -- to deliver enterprise applications.

"We'll see a shift from providing Windows desktops to providing apps … on any mobile device carried by the knowledge worker," said Dave Bartoletti, a senior analyst with The Taneja Group, a technology analysis firm in Hopkinton, Mass.

VDI in 2012
Over the years, industry pundits predicted that virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) would be a wholesale replacement for PCs. It hasn't happened and crystal gazings of that sort have petered out. (Though Rachel Chalmers, research director at The 451 Group, joked that 2012 "will be the fifth annual year of VDI.")

Analysts had good reason to predict that VDI would replace traditional PCs though. On paper, VDI makes sense for IT. It addresses a variety of needs -- remote access, security, compliance and the burgeoning Bring-Your-Own-PC (BYOPC) trend. But the promise of VDI is overshadowed by "the three C's" -- CAPEX, complexity and connectivity, said Mark Margevicius, a client computing analyst with the tech research firm Gartner, Inc.

In other words, even after years of improvements, server-hosted VDI still costs more than PCs, it is tougher to implement and virtual desktops can't be accessed offline (without a client hypervisor).

But VDI started maturing in 2011 and some of the technology's rough edges began to smooth. Citrix Systems and VMware Inc. made many acquisitions in 2011 to fill out their respective VDI products. XenClient reached version 2 with XenDesktop 5.5 in 2011, providing offline support. VMware finally added profile management with View 5 and made major improvements to the PCoIP protocol. Citrix removed much of the complexity in XenDesktop.

Citrix also claims that with new features such as HDX system-on-a-chip due out in 2012, VDI  costs no more than standard desktop PCs. Citrix may even make VDI cheaper than PCs by Citrix Synergy 2012 in May, "but it will only be possible by skimping on disaster recovery/business continuity capabilities," said Simon Bramfitt, founder and principle analyst of Entelechy Associates, a workspace technology consultancy in Concord, Calif.

Though VDI has improved, there is more to be done. IT pros say VDI could be simpler to install and they want more powerful, better performing virtual desktops. Additionally, VDI products don't include all the components necessary to assemble the full stack, so third-party products have to be injected into the mix, adding cost and complexity.

With that, there will be more industry consolidation in 2012. "Expect to see Citrix, VMware [and] Quest continue to buy up startups to absorb their technologies into next gen products," Bramfitt said.

Consolidation is also expected in the thin client hardware industry. Bramfitt expects to see at least one thin client vendor go under due to reduced margins and lack of product differentiation. The nail in the coffin for some thin clients offerings could be new low-cost zero clients based on Citrix's HDX system-on-a-chip reference architecture, he said. The first HDX system-on-a-chip devices are expected in early 2012 and include zero clients below $100.

While Citrix and VMware gather the pieces for a complete VDI suite, companies that need to provide locked-down Windows desktops in 2012 will look to existing all-in-one solutions, said Bartoletti of The Taneja Group.

"One-stop VDI shopping will continue to gain dominance," Bartoletti said. "For those clients who still need to provide a locked-down Windows desktop, all-in-one solutions from providers like Kaviza [now Citrix], Virtual Bridges and Desktone will increasingly look more attractive than building an in-house VDI infrastructure."

Desktone's Desktops as a Service (DaaS) caught the attention of some companies in 2011 because DaaS takes complexity out of the equation by hosting virtual desktops from the cloud. But there are still cost and connectivity issues with this model. Customers have to pay for Microsoft Windows licensing plus the monthly hosting fees, and an Internet connection is required to access the desktop, Margevicius said.

Server-hosted desktop virtualization
Some say server-hosted desktop virtualization technologies will remain important for some because the cloud just isn't going to cut it for a broad enough set of apps.

Harry Labana, an AppSense CTO who formerly served as Citrix's CTO, expects IT pros to continue delivering one-to-one VDI in the data center in 2012. They will increase their level of understanding of sophisticated desktop virtualization capabilities as real deployments are faced with Windows XP end of life pending in April 2014. (Of course, it is in AppSense's interest for IT to use server-hosted desktop virtualization technologies.)

But analysts agree: More large enterprises are expected to evaluate and adopt VDI in 2012 than previous years. In fact, more VDI licenses will probably be sold in 2012 than have been sold in all other years combined, Branfitt said.

Since Gartner reports that only 1% to 2% of the entire PC installed base uses VDI today, that number won't change the fact that VDI adoption is small. And it will remain a niche technology -- server-hosted VDI is expected to represent only 8% to 12% of the PC market by 2015, according to Gartner.

That's because VDI is simply one of many desktop virtualization technologies available today.

"VDI isn't an either or -- it isn't a replacement for PCs," Margevicius said. "It is simply another tool in the IT admin toolbox to address certain use cases."

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho or follow @BridgetBotelho on Twitter.

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