Die, desktop, die: Desktop virtualization looms

Finally, all the pieces for desktop virtualization have fallen into place, and the cost and security benefits are irresistible

When I put in a couple of requests for new PCs for my staff a few of weeks ago, I wondered: Will this be the last time I do this?

The old desktop model may finally be ready to give up the ghost. No, I'm not getting all hot and bothered about Chrome OS and desktops in the cloud. I expect to see some great Internet appliances out of that, but not full-bore business computing. I'm talking about the many varieties of desktop virtualization. And there's some indication that 2010 may be a tipping point.

[ See Paul Venezia's in-depth review of Citrix's latest streaming application solution, XenApp 5. | Keep up with the latest in virtualization with David Marshall's Virtualization Report, and read InfoWorld's Virtualization newsletter. ]

Do I even need to say that managing business desktop PCs is more unsustainable than ever? Every one of those endpoints is an attack vector for well-organized criminals, so patches must be up-to-the minute and users must be relied on not to make dumb security mistakes. And after all these years, some app upgrades and configuration changes still require admin gruntwork at the desktop, the most unproductive use of everyone's time imaginable.

In moving the desktop to a server, desktop virtualization provides not only an opportunity to lock down everyone's desktop environment once and for all, it means all changes can be made on the server side. The savings in total cost of ownership are tantalizing.

But until now, desktop virtualization has suffered from a polarity of extremes. On the one hand, you have good old Microsoft Terminal Services, where thin clients users essentially share a common Windows environment with no opportunity for user customization of the desktop or applications. It's cheaper in terms of licensing and efficient in its hardware and network requirements, but unless all users are engaged in the same activities, the lack of customization can dampen productivity.

At the other extreme, you have VDI (Virtual Desktop Infrastructure). Here, individual Windows instances are maintained on a central server, so users enjoy essentially the same experience they would have with a local Windows PC, only on a thin client. As you might imagine, this sucks up network bandwidth, and requires big honking servers to deliver those Windows desktops. Some early adopters have expressed disappointment in the resulting total cost of ownership, and predictions of wide VDI adoption have not borne fruit.

But 2010 is shaping up to be the year of the happy medium. Increasingly, desktop virtualization is moving toward a client-server model, where some parts of the desktop environment are retained locally while others are delivered by the host. In some cases applications can be streamed to the client, avoiding delayed response. Most exciting of all, though, is the idea of multiple virtual machines on the desktop client itself, as with Citrix XenDesktop 4 (recipient of InfoWorld's Technology of the Year Award), where a virtual machine on the client connects to the network and contains all the applications IT needs to lock down, while the rest of the client can be configured and maintained by the user.

One implication of this is that, in some organization, users can maintain (or even buy) their own desktops, and run a VM that contains everything they need for the workday. The IT department doesn't need to worry about anything else happening on client computers, because the "business VM" is where all work happens. Unauthorized applications or even malware might live on the client, but couldn't cross into the organization's network.

Nothing happens overnight in business computing, so I'm not saying this year will not see some sort of wholesale transformation to desktop virtualization. But finally, all the pieces are in place. I'll be surprised if we don't hear about a significant number of high-profile customers making the switch -- and as usual I'd love to hear what your plans are in this new landscape.

This story, "Die, desktop, die: Desktop virtualization looms," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Follow the latest developments in virtualization at InfoWorld.com.

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