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How to explain desktop virtualization to non-IT people

Struggling to describe desktop virtualization to your mother, spouse or boss? Don't fret. This primer can help you explain why the technology exists to just about anyone.

I spent last weekend in Akron, Ohio, visiting my parents. Even though I've explained it dozens of times, my mom...

again asked me, "So what exactly is this technology you work with?" Here's how I describe desktop virtualization to non-IT people. I hope it will be valuable for your spouse, mother -- or boss.

Back in the 1990s, "work" was a place -- a building that employees went to all day, every day. The computers of those days were beige boxes that literally sat on desks. The employees used their computers at work for work tasks. There was no Web per se, and most people didn't have computers at home.

Over time, however, more everyday people got computers at home. They learned how to use them. They learned about the Internet. They started to have opinions and preferences about how they'd like to work with them.

At the same time, the whole notion of "work" started to evolve from "a place" to "the way employees spend their time." Computers evolved from huge beige desktops into small portable laptops, and just about everyone had one. The Internet became ubiquitous, and users started working from home. And Starbucks. And the hotel. And the car. And the plane. Eventually, users started working on other devices -- first with company-issued BlackBerrys and ultimately with iPhones, Androids and netbooks.

All this evolved into a massive challenge for IT departments. In the old beige-box days, administrators were able to completely control and lock down users' desktops. But now that the average user knows what's possible, it's harder and harder for IT to dictate what a user can and cannot do. (Especially in an age where employees can easily switch jobs. A company that allows users to work with whatever technology they want has a distinct advantage over an old-school company that limits user abilities.)

The problem is that companies (and their IT departments) are still fundamentally responsible for ensuring that their users can do productive work with their machines. IT admins have to provide access to corporate applications and information. They have to allow users to share emails and documents. They have to ensure that company data is protected.

All of this was easy in the "building full of beige boxes" era. But now that users want to work from anywhere via any device … not so much

This is where desktop virtualization comes in. "Desktop virtualization" is not a product or even a technology; rather, it's a term that applies to a whole niche of the IT industry dedicated to helping companies connect their business software to users on any device from any location. It allows users to connect into the corporate network to work from home. It lets users get real work done from airports on their iPads. It can secure a laptop computer so that when an employee loses one, it won't trigger a 100,000-person mass-mailing of "You've been enrolled in two years of gold credit-watch monitoring service" letters.

Of course, while I've explained why desktop virtualization exists, I haven't explained what exactly it is or how it works. But if whomever you're talking to is interested in that, you can just send them the link to this website and wish them happy reading!

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Brian Madden is an independent industry analyst and blogger, known throughout the world as an opinionated, supertechnical desktop virtualization expert. He has written several books and more than 1,000 articles about desktop and application virtualization. Madden's blog,, receives millions of visitors per year and is a leading source for conversation, debate and discourse about the application and desktop virtualization industry. He is also the creator of BriForum, the premier independent application delivery technical conference.

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