The growing maturity of virtual desktop technologies and customer interest in Windows 7 has VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) vendors expecting big adoption numbers in 2010. But while most CIOs are at least thinking about desktop virtualization, this year's projects may be limited to pilots and small deployments because of up-front costs and technology challenges that hamper user experience.
An ITIC survey of more than 800 businesses worldwide shows that 31 percent of respondents plan to implement VDI this year, more than double the previous year. A related technology, application virtualization, is also on the upswing with 37 percent of respondents planning implementations, an increase from 15 percent the previous year. Likewise, Gartner has found that 33 percent of organizations plan to deploy hosted virtual desktops in 2010.
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The flip side to those numbers is that about two-thirds of customers either won't deploy desktop and application virtualization this year, or are undecided. There's good reason for that, says Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf.
"The ROI case for virtual desktops [over three to five years] is break-even at best right now," Wolf says. "Contrary to what vendors are claiming, the ROI isn't there for a large-scale, server-hosted virtual desktop deployment." (See related story: "5 virtual desktop pitfalls".)
Some early adopters say they have saved money by prolonging the life of PCs or using less expensive thin clients, and that hosting desktop images in the data center improves manageability and makes it easier to restore an employee's desktop in case of device failure. (See related story about Amerisure's VDI deployment.)
But moving desktop images and applications from the user's hands to the data center requires a major shift in both IT infrastructure and mindset. Network director John Turner of Brandeis University in Massachusetts has embraced server virtualization but is still skeptical about the technology's counterpart on the desktop. If a server goes down, users can probably still connect to the Internet and get work done. But "if a desktop shuts down, it's a whole different story," Turner says. "Folks will be dead in the water." VDI also requires significant IT staff training, he says.
But with many businesses planning to upgrade to the Windows 7 operating system, IT departments are taking a closer look at virtual desktop models. Vista never really caught on the way XP did, but Windows 7 is another story.
"Windows 7 is definitely a catalyst," Wolf says. "It's a good operating system certainly, but with the pending XP end-of-life in another four years, there are a lot of enterprises planning their next-generation desktops. They understand they have to retool their desktop infrastructure. That's causing them to put everything on the table, including desktop virtualization."