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Virtual desktop costs, complexity, overshadow benefits

Virtual desktops promise to ease management woes but IT managers say they are still vexed by licensing issues, infrastructure needs and sundry hardware and software costs.

SAN FRANCISCO - IT managers are still high on the idea of rolling out some form of desktop virtualization, even though added infrastructure costs, product complexity and confusing licensing issues have slowed the uptake of this technology.

And it didn't help that the economy tanked last year and IT budgets were slashed. But IT pros haven't given up on using virtual desktops to gain management benefits, and many came to seek out information at VMworld, the virtualization conference held here last month.

Do the virtual desktop pros outweigh the costs?

When reviewing the cost of hardware, software, and licensing policies required to deploy VMware's own virtual desktop integration (VDI) product, a single virtual desktop unit can cost over $5,000 compared to about $500 for a traditional desktop, said Christian Metz, director of information technology for the Orange County United Way.

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"Your typical new Dell desktop will run you about $500, assuming you buy at the right time...when you purchase the computer it just works, it comes with XP licensing and you are free to do with it as you will," Metz said. "When you get into VDI things get a little more complicated."

Metz shared his analysis of installing VMware VDI's based on estimates received from vendors earlier this year:

  1. Physical server (VMware ESX Host) to run virtual desktops: $4.900, plus support. A basic server at this price should run 30-50 desktops.
  2. Licensing per client for VMware View: $150 to $250/client (concurrent licensing) plus support
  3. Device to run VDI (Wyse V10-L thin client) is $350/client, plus support, plus $25/client for Thin Client Extension
  4. Microsoft VDI licensing (VECD) is $280 to $290/client for three year contract. (This is not concurrent user licensing, so you must have a license for each instance of Windows.)
  5. Storage varies depending on the type, but to be able to manage desktops across physical hardware, shared storage (SAN/NAS) is required, and can be very expensive.

"Add that all up and the cost for a single VDI desktop it comes out to a total investment of $5,815. Should you maximize the server and get 30 units out the bag, the total cost would be $32,350 for a cost per unit of $1,078," Metz said. "As you can see, it's just not nearly as cost effective as they make it sound."

*The $5,815 figure is for one single VDI client running on one physical host. Clearly, it doesn't make sense to purchase a VDI setup to run a single virtual host. On average, IT can run eight VDIs per core, so the 30 VDI workstation example would be running on a quad-core CPU physical host. This could, hypothetically, provide up to 32 hosts per CPU, Metz said.

As the numbers show, desktop virtualization only makes economic sense when it is used for a large group of end users, which also means VDI is a big to do for the IT staff.

"Someone in IT has to put together the project with a significant group of users for it to have any impact," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc., a Nashua, N.H. consulting firm.

The high cost of VDI is no secret though, and even VMware CEO Paul Maritz said at VMworld that VDI – storage and networking alone make desktop virtualization cost prohibitive.

"To get to more users, we have to focus on costs," Maritz said.

Revisiting VDI

Chris Wells, an administrator with Dryers Grand Ice Cream Inc., based in Oakland, Calif., said he is reconsidering desktop virtualization after dismissing it three years ago due to the expense and complexity. Cost has dropped a bit and now there are management features that make it a better option for large enterprises that need to manage thousands of desktops.

A group of IT engineers from the National Defense and the Canadian Forces at VMworld came specifically to learn more about desktop virtualization. They wanted more information about how they might find easier desktop provisioning, improved security and longer PC lifecycles.

Management is easier with VDI because it lets IT administrators deploy a thin client, which requires very little configuration, create a single image and manage it all from one location, Orange County's Metz said.

"With VDI the cost of deploying units is far cheaper than that of a physical workstation," he said. "With physical workstations I have to build an image, which I have to keep updated, apply this to each physical workstation and deploy them. This process has to be re-accomplished each time I get new hardware as drivers, OS, and application load may vary."

And Metz said despite the high cost, he is researching VDI and considering it because of the many benefits the technology affords. *Information added after initial publication for clarity

Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer

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