The big virtual desktop vendors -- Citrix Systems, VMware and Microsoft -- get all the attention, but individual requirements may lead an IT manager to choose from among the many other companies that sell this software -- often at lower prices and with good results.
The desktop virtualization space is still muddy, but the market has reached a point where enterprises that don't have an overly complex set of requirements can adopt server-hosted desktop virtualization with little risk, said Simon Bramfitt, an analyst at Burton Group in Midvale, Utah.
"There are some interesting alternatives that are worth looking at if you are willing to look a little further afield," he said.
One option comes from NComputing in Redwood City, Calif. NComputing's access device and built-in software plug into a PC and divvy up that PC's resources among multiple simultaneous users.
Basically, when a user signs into his desktop, a UXP communications protocol sends the desktop images, video and audio to the access device, which is a small, low-watt, lightweight box that plugs into the user's peripherals on one end and to the shared PC on the other.
Jim Rich, an IT director at an automotive sales company in Redding, Calif., is testing NComputing's gear. His take so far? "It isn't too bad," he said. "It makes basic computing and Web surfing an easy task for a virtual system. The ease of setting up the client is great."
Rich said he likes that the product is for computers that are located geographically close to one another. After all, NComputing users are tied to their terminals, whereas with some other hosted desktop offerings, such as XenDesktop, users can sign into their virtual desktops from any PC or device.
But the acquisition cost is far lower than options from Citrix or VMware, at just around $70 per device.
Desktop as a service
Another option comes from Desktone Inc. in Chelmsford, Mass., which claims to have coined the term "desktop as a service" (DaaS). The service lets companies circumvent infrastructure requirements by delivering virtual desktops as a subscription. IBM started selling the service a few months ago.
A basic offering includes a specific number of hosted virtual desktops normally priced between $50 and $75 per month, per desktop. The service provider supplies the physical resources on which the virtual desktops run, and the enterprise brings the operating system images, licenses, applications and data, according to Desktone.
"We have a compelling model for companies that are looking at VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] and considering spending millions of dollars in infrastructure to support it," said Jeff Fisher, Desktone's senior director of strategic direction. "Instead of going to their CFO to get the funds and then have to manage it, they can go to a service provider like IBM and let them pay for the infrastructure. It eliminated the worry about capex [capital expenditures] and management."
One expert said the DaaS concept is a good idea but hasn't yet taken off.
"The idea that a cable provider can offer a thin client and they take care of all the administration and infrastructure sounds enormously appealing," said Gordon Haff, an analyst at Illuminata Inc. in Nashua, N.H. "No one seems to have pushed on it very hard, and I'm not entirely sure why. ... It seems like a promising business model."
More virtual desktop options
And if cloud isn't your thing, there are other ways to deliver hosted virtual desktops.
IT managers are hesitant to choose Sun Microsystems' virtual desktop software because of uncertainty regarding Sun's unfinished acquisition by Oracle, Bramfitt said. That said, Sun continues adding to its line of desktop virtualization products and new versions of its Sun VDI software. Recently, the company launched the Sun Desktop Access Client, which lets employees use their existing Windows laptops or desktop PCs instead of Sun Ray thin clients.
Quest Software in Alisa Viejo, Calif., sells vWorkspace, which is probably one of the more visible and mature products in the market. Virtual Bridges, LeoStream and RingCube Technologies are other names in the game.
Quest Software's vWorkspace was a Best of VMworld 2008 finalist for its desktop virtualization offering, which uses VMware Virtual Infrastructure to create hosted desktops, including VM management and monitoring capabilities, application delivery and more.
Virtual Bridges is an Austin, Texas-based company that uses open-source standards to provide virtual desktops and managed desktops, using a client-side hypervisor.
LeoStream provides a vendor-agnostic Connection Broker that connects end users to physical and virtualized desktops, Terminal Server sessions and applications.
Mountain View, Calif.-based RingCube's vDesk is a "workspace virtualization" product that sits between application virtualization and hypervisor-based virtualization. It encapsulates an entire computing workspace, which includes everything above the operating system kernel -- applications, data, settings and any nonprivileged OS subsystems to deliver a Windows desktop.
And while any of those hosted virtual desktop offerings will improve desktop management, IT managers should be wary of any vendor claims at achieving huge cost reductions. "Unless they are transitioning from an unmanaged or only lightly managed desktop environment, they should not expect to see the dramatic ROI figures that some vendors are claiming," Burton Group's Bramfitt said.
"As ever, there are exceptional conditions where worthwhile ROI can be achieved, but unless an organization can measure the broader opportunities that a more agile and flexible desktop computing environment can bring, ROI under 18 months is hard to imagine," he said.
Let us know what you think about the story; email Bridget Botelho, News Writer.