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March 12, 2010 • Vol.32 Issue 6
Page(s) 10 in print issue

Desktop Virtualization
A Virtual Option Worth Looking At

Key Points

• The goal of desktop virtualization is to provide the same desktop and application experience that a user would have from a traditional or physical desktop.

• Desktop virtualization differs from other types of virtualization in that it directly affects the end-user experience.

• Benefits of desktop virtualization include reduced hardware costs, smaller data centers, lower power bills, faster deployment, and higher uptime.

Desktop virtualization is becoming a common term in the enterprise, but is it truly a viable technology? How does the technology work, and how is it different from other forms of virtualization? Are small to midsized enterprises reaping the benefits of this technology? In addition, what should your enterprise be doing in this area?

Desktop Virtualization Defined

Calvin Hsu, director of product marketing with the XenDesktop product group at Citrix (www.citrix.com), says desktop virtualization can be interpreted in different ways. “Some people equate desktop virtualization with VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure), but that is a rather narrow definition, and it doesn’t cover all the bases,” he says. “We tend to agree with the industry analysts that take a broader view and think of desktop virtualization as being inclusive of multiple architectures that isolate and insulate the OS from applications and from hardware changes.”

Jon Rolls, vice president of product management with the Quest Desktop Virtualization Group (www.vworkspace.com), says desktop virtualization covers a range of technologies designed to reduce the cost and complexity of managing a network of desktop systems, especially those running Windows. The essential goal of virtualization is to provide the user with the same desktop and application experience he would have from a traditional or physical desktop system, yet deliver it using different technologies behind the scenes in a way that is easier to manage, maintain, and deploy.

Rolls says that in the case of VDI, the desktop operating system is not run on the physical desktop hardware sitting on the user’s desk but is run on a virtual machine in the data center, and the video display is taken from the data center and delivered to the user’s access device, whether it is a thin client, a laptop, a desktop computer, or a mobile device.

Desktop Differences

Desktop virtualization is different from other forms of virtualization, Hsu says, because technologically it may, in some cases, use server virtualization and storage virtualization as parts of the infrastructure. “But since it reaches out of the data center and directly impacts end users, desktop virtualization is operationally different in a few ways,” Hsu says. “Take scale, for instance: You may have many thousands of virtual desktops but only a few hundred servers or disks to virtualize. The impacts to management, IT roles, and support have potential for a lot of benefits, but the scale means that you can’t expect your server and storage virtualization best practices to directly translate to desktops.”

Hsu also cites user experience as a differentiator. “While server and storage virtualization are largely only visible to IT, desktops directly impact the productivity and operations of end users,” he says. “The performance, network bandwidth, peripheral interoperability, etc., all need to be given priority in order for users to adopt virtual desktops.” And from a cost benefit perspective, he says server and storage virtualization are largely judged on a hardware consolidation basis for ROI (return on investment). “Desktop virtualization is usually about operational savings for desktop and application management, security, support, change management, and workplace flexibility,” he explains. “Different metrics need to be considered to capture these benefits.”

So why should IT and data managers care about desktop virtualization? According to Rolls, the benefits of server virtualization are well-established, which lend themselves to desktop virtualization benefits. “Consider reduced hardware costs, smaller data centers, lower power bills, faster deployment, higher uptime, and so on,” Rolls says. “The goal of desktop virtualization is to bring these same benefits to the expensive, troublesome world of Windows desktop management.”

Rolls says the difference is that virtualizing servers generally consists of taking one set of boxes in the data center and replacing them with a smaller number in the same data center. “With desktop virtualization, the computers to be virtualized are not already in a data center but are actually scattered around the organization sitting on desks,” he says. “The fact that desktops are so decentralized is what makes managing them so complex and expensive, and if a business can bite the bullet and centralize those assets into the data center, they can reap enormous benefits in terms of agility, rapid deployment, user productivity, and security.”

In Hsu’s opinion, desktop virtualization, particularly when viewed holistically, can revolutionize the way people work. “It can enable IT to be an enabler of business initiatives like remote working, global expansion, branch office expansion, outsourcing and offshoring, etc., instead of being a logistical barrier that must be overcome,” he says. “It also can dramatically reduce operational costs for managing, maintaining, and upgrading desktops.” Hsu says that in this regard, desktop virtualization can have a significant positive impact on the ease and speed of Windows 7 migrations.

Current Practices

According to Rolls, SMEs are currently looking at desktop virtualization from two angles: applications as a service and outsourced desktops.

Rolls says with the first angle, rather than installing and maintaining complex applications on a computer network, many applications are increasingly available across the Internet for a monthly or yearly fee. “The application or service provider takes care of all updates, storage, backups, and so forth and also provides technical support,” he explains. “On the face of it, there are security and continuity concerns with giving up ownership of a critical piece of software, but for an increasing number of organizations, these concerns are outweighed by the benefit of no longer needing to employ IT administrators and invest in on-premises hardware and backup solutions.”

Rolls says that with the second angle, regional service providers and resellers are beginning to offer DaaS (desktops as a service), where the SME no longer has desktops physically located on its own premises, but instead users access desktops hosted remotely in a data center owned by the service provider. “In return for a fee, they get all the desktops and applications they need without the hassle of managing their own computing infrastructure,” Rolls says. “This vision is not new, but advances in desktop virtualization technology in the last few years have brought it much closer to reality.”

At any rate, Rolls says successful desktop virtualization projects typically divide their user base into classes of user type and select the type of desktop virtualization most appropriate for each user class to achieve the lowest cost per user.

by Chris A. MacKinnon


Action Plan

According to Calvin Hsu, director of product marketing with the XenDesktop product group at Citrix (www.citrix.com), those that are leading the charge into desktop virtualization are doing three key things:

Starting now. They are finding one or a few simple use cases where they can bring immediate benefit and then piloting. Desktop virtualization has seen tremendous growth and momentum over the past year, with many SMEs rapidly progressing from initial trials to production pilots and rollouts. It will take some time for IT roles and responsibilities to adjust to the new desktop virtualization paradigm.

Leveraging PC refresh budget to fund pilots and repurposing PCs as end points for virtual desktops. In this way, companies can ease the transitional costs and at the same time get extended life out of their existing PCs.

Recognizing that one size doesn’t fit all. Those who think of desktop virtualization in a narrow sense, such as VDI only, are locked into only one model of infrastructure cost and user experience that is likely not appropriate for all desktop users. Instead, some current adopters are leveraging the full range of desktop virtualization solutions to design the appropriate architecture for the many different use cases and business requirements they will encounter across the organization.


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