VDI performance still falls short of PCs

Despite vendors' best efforts, virtual desktops still can't hold a candle to PCs -- and it might take until 2014 for VDI performance to catch up.

VDI vendors claim that virtual desktops trump Windows PCs, yet they have bent over backwards in recent years to deliver a PC-like experience. IT pros want to know: Why not just use a PC?

Nearly every acquisition and improvement Citrix Systems Inc. and VMware Inc. have made to their virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) offerings in recent years has been in the vein of delivering a full PC experience. They have yet to achieve that goal for VDI performance.

Even VDI devotees are singing 'Kumbaya.'

Citrix and VMware both added offline support to allow users to work on virtual desktops without an Internet connection. Each has also acquired profile management software that gives end users the type of personalized experience they get with PCs.

Plus, both vendors continually improve their remote desktop protocol technologies with the goal of delivering PC-like performance for virtual desktops. (Teradici, the vendor that delivers VMware's protocol, refers to PC over IP [PCoIP] as the "protocol that enables a true PC experience for desktop virtualization.")

The truth of the matter, though, is that while IT administrators can cobble together these and other technologies to deliver virtual desktops that look and act like PCs, virtual desktops still have a ways to go. Gartner Inc. predicts that hosted virtual desktop capabilities won't provide a user experience comparable to that of PCs until 2014.

Since solid VDI performance isn't promised, most companies continue to rely on PCs. Enterprises that have evaluated VDI use a mix of PCs and remote desktop technologies, including application virtualization, Microsoft's Terminal Services and workstation virtualization, according to the Virtualization Decisions 2011 survey of more than 500 IT pros that was conducted by SearchServerVirtualization.com.

VDI still headed uphill

But that doesn't mean IT pros should give up on VDI, which offers benefits over the status quo, said Todd Knapp, CEO of Envision Technology Advisors, a virtualization consultancy based in Providence, R.I.

"The philosophy of virtual desktops surrounds not trying to teach new dogs old tricks," Knapp said. "We want to deliver something that is easier and more flexible than using a PC."

More on VDI adoption

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VDI adoption slow through 2012

Application delivery key to VDI adoption

Server-hosted VDI offers IT administrators a way to centrally manage desktops, which is simpler than managing hundreds or thousands of individual PCs. Because virtual desktops aren't tied to hardware, VDI also affords flexibility in that end users can access their desktops and apps from any Internet-connected device.

As VDI performance improves and the technology becomes more mature, less expensive and less complex to deploy, we will see an increase in the speed of deployment of VDI -- or what Gartner calls "hosted virtual desktops" (HVDs) -- over the next five years, according to the research firm.

By the end of 2016, 30% of large organizations (those with more than 1,000 users) will have deployed HVDs to 20% of their users or more. In all, HVDs will be used to deliver client computing capabilities to 77 million users by 2016, Gartner predicts.

Compared to the more than 87 million PCs that Gartner said were shipped worldwide during the second quarter of 2012, that is a drop in the bucket, but it looks like desktop virtualization is finally on its way.

VDI vendors turn to physical desktops, too

Still, VDI performance levels mean that desktop virtualization remains an end-user computing niche, and vendors recognize this. Desktop virtualization vendors had ignored physical desktops in recent years under the belief that VDI would dominate the market, but the fantasy of virtual desktops displacing PCs is over.

Virtualization vendors have admitted that end-user computing encompasses far more than virtual desktops, and even VDI devotees are singing "Kumbaya."

The prime example is VMware's May acquisition of Wanova Inc. to gain centralized image management for physical desktops. The virtualization pioneer, which for years has preached the virtues of desktop virtualization, has committed to use Wanova Mirage to provide customers with Single image management for physical desktops.

"We do not see the world of end-user computing exclusively through the lenses of virtual machines, and I am very excited about this opportunity to redefine what desktop virtualization is and how it fits into our vision for [end-user computing]," said Vittorio Viarengo, VMware's vice president of marketing for end-user computing, in a July blog post.

Citrix also supports the philosophy that VDI isn't the be-all, end-all through its FlexCast technology. Citrix acquired Virtual Computer earlier this year to integrate its NxTop client-side virtualization software into the Citrix desktop portfolio. NxTop allows IT to centralize PC management and it integrates with VDI.

Other desktop virtualization vendors have begun to expand their reach beyond virtual desktops. Liquidware Labs Inc. recently introduced a departmental application management feature that will extend to physical desktops.

PC support will help these vendors get out of the desktop virtualization box and into mainstream physical desktop environments. That's not to say they plan to abandon desktop virtualization; as Gartner's predictions show, there is business to be had.

But the end-user computing trend is that many companies will deploy a mix of virtual desktops and physical desktops, said Gabe Knuth, desktop analyst and BrianMadden.com blogger. Cloud, Desktop as a Service (DaaS) and cloud-hosted applications will play into the equation as well.

"VDI has been slow, but at the end of the day all we want to do is manage all of our desktops," Knuth said. "If companies like VMware don't give us a way to manage virtual desktops and physical desktops, we won't use them."

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