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Delivering desktop PCs through the cloud

Several vendors are combining VDI and cloud computing to build converged offerings that appeal to certain business users -- namely in the small business market.

Cloud technology has spawned some interesting services, including hosted file servers, applications on demand and business continuity solutions. Several vendors are now taking the technology to the next level, combining virtualization with cloud services. More specifically, they are building out a hosted desktop platform that uses a virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) to deliver a desktop PC experience to an endpoint running a browser.

VDI and cloud computing have been around for a while and have evolved to be very effective. Many organizations use VDI technologies from vendors like Citrix and VMware to push virtual desktops out across their enterprises. However, some organizations have eschewed virtual PCs and have instead delivered applications and services to desktop PCs through Web 2.0 technologies.

These opposite approaches of delivering line-of-business capabilities to the desktop have created an impression that the cloud is suitable only for certain types of services and that virtual desktops are only effective inside the firewall.

However, nothing could be further from the truth.

As long as you have adequate connectivity, the cloud can deliver almost any type of IT capability to an end user. Those capabilities -- along with the adoption of new technologies -- have melded to build converged offerings that appeal to users in the small business market.Enterprises may not benefit from desktop as a service (DaaS) because larger companies often have specialized infrastructures. As a result, they can roll out a controlled virtual desktop environment internally, more effectively and with less expense.

DaaS is the combination of cloud services and virtualized desktops. Vendors are offering this service for monthly fees or leased services agreements.

DaaS has several benefits, including:

  • Simplified PC management
  • Improved security
  • Inherent disaster recovery and business-continuity capabilities
  • Reduced operating expenses
  • Reduced hardware costs
  • Rapid deployments
  • Improved support and reliability
  • Reduced capital expenses
  • Access to the latest technologies

Although these advantages build a compelling argument for DaaS , there are some issues and requirements to consider, including:

  • Bandwidth requirements
  • Licensing issues and concerns
  • Data ownership
  • Compliance issues
  • Customized applications
  • Vertical market hardware and software requirements
  • Security

Can DaaS work in your environment?
Balancing the benefits of DaaS against these concerns can be a daunting and complicated process, usually beyond the grasp of an average small business operator. As a result, small business owners are forced to turn to consultants or trusted advisors to help decide what best suits their needs. This can be an additional expense. A cheaper way to determine if DaaS is a good fit for your business is to ask the following questions:

  • Do I have the bandwidth needed to effectively run a DaaS offering?
  • Are there any compliance requirements that dictate how business data is handled?
  • Do I need the latest applications and technologies to be effective?
  • Do I need customized or specialized applications?
  • Do I currently have a client/server infrastructure in place?
  • Do I need to reduce capital expenses?
  • Can I comfortably increase operational expenses?
  • How much control do I need to have over desktop hardware and software?

The answers to these questions can be used to frame the suitability of DaaS for your business .

For example, a business must have enough bandwidth to effectively run a remote, hosted desktop; throughput and latency must fall within operational requirements for DaaS to work.

Knowing how -- and where -- proprietary data is stored is also a critical concern. iBusiness owners need to determine how their data is protected before venturing into the realm of DaaS.

Furthermore, custom applications -- especially those that need client/server or SQL access -- can greatly complicate a DaaS deployment.

Another factor to consider is the organization's custom hardware needs. For example, DaaS may not be suitable for a business that runs a point-of-sale (PoS) application and uses bar-code scanners, cash drawers or receipt printers.

The cost of DaaS
After addressing all the above issues, the argument for DaaS adoption comes down to a financial one.

For many small businesses -- especially startups -- DaaS can be an economical way to gain an IT infrastructure that meets their needs.

DaaS can eliminate many capital expenditures. All that is needed is an inexpensive PC with Internet connectivity. Therefore, initial hardware purchases may be limited to a few PCs or netbooks and a printer or other output device.

Most of the expenses of DaaS come in the form of monthly fees, which are based on the number of concurrent users, applications delivered and bandwidth used. As a result, computing expenses can be considered a budgetary item -- not a major upfront expense.

DaaS vendors
Several vendors offer DaaS service directly or through authorized resellers.

  • Desktone has a complete cloud-based product for virtual desktops. According to the company, the Desktone-enabled DaaS gives enterprise IT all the benefits of desktop virtualization, minus the costs and risks associated with selecting, owning and managing the physical resources. As a result, IT can keep using the best practices and skill sets that it has for managing desktops in the physical world, including those for operating system and application deployment, Active Directory, help desk, and security policies. End users get reliable anytime, anywhere access to their desktops. Desktone has several pricing schemes based on contract length, number of desktops and support levels.
  • MindShift Technologies' NextDesktop features a completely hosted virtual PC built on VDI. The company offers three different PC types -- basic, standard or premium desktops. The editions offer different amounts of storage and have different applications pre-installed. Aimed at small businesses and home users, the company charges a flat, monthly fee based on the options selected, starting at $39.99 per month. In its current form, NextDesktop is not suitable for enterprise-level deployments.
  • Helsinki, Finland-based Nervogrid is aiming to one day provide a complete virtual infrastructure to the enterprise market. Initially, the company offered virtualized applications and services like hosted Microsoft Exchange, Microsoft Office SharePoint and several productivity related applications. It is now offering hosted desktop infrastructure options, including a virtual desktop. Nervogrid says its virtual desktop product is a virtual machine that runs a desktop operating system instance in the data center that can be accessed from anywhere using a thin client or a Web browser. The virtual desktop experience is similar to that of a traditional PC -- i.e. fast performance and a personalized environment. The price depends on several factors, including user counts, storage needs and ancillary services.

These three vendors are examples of how software as a service (SaaS) is evolving and what features an end user should expect. In the near future, more vendors will enter the SaaS fray. Don't be surprised to see big names like IBM Global Services, Dell and Google arriving on the scene.

Frank Ohlhorst is an IT journalist who has also served as a network administrator and applications programmer before forming his own computer consulting firm.

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