Desktop virtualization: Will Windows 7 change the game?

Some customers will bite, but widespread desktop virtualization adoption is still years off

Microsoft is pushing desktop virtualization as a way of making Windows 7 play nicely with old applications, especially those written for Windows XP. So now that the technology has been "blessed" by Microsoft, can the industry brace for a desktop-virtualization boom? Probably not, most experts agree.

That said, though, there will likely be an uptick in the acceptance of desktop virtualization, for a couple of reasons. First, more vendors are offering Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI), which give each end user a private "desktop." VDI uses the same kind of hypervisors that allow many virtual machines to run on a single physical host. But rather than running five- or ten-server VMs on one physical server, VDI can run 50 PC operating systems, each of which serves a single end user.

The other big change is support for peripherals, multimedia and other Web- and PC-focused technologies. These have been inaccessible for users of shared-image terminal-services types of systems -- that is, traditional desktop virtualization -- but nowadays most users won't do without them.

"Improvements in the user experience are really a big deal in making desktop virtualization more acceptable," says Andi Mann, an analyst with Enterprise Management Associates.

Giving end users all the benefits and all the capabilities they'd have on standalone machines -- including the ability to add or update their own browser plug-ins, media players and other "extraneous" software -- could overcome most of the objections by business units that have kept virtual desktops out of the mainstream user base, Mann says.

Extending the life of an old PC

Another element that may make virtual desktops far more popular is the unwillingness of some companies to upgrade their PC hardware enough to support migrations to Windows 7, according to Chris Wolf, infrastructure analyst at The Burton Group.

Implementing Windows 7 requires upgrading hardware, updating custom-built software, training end users and updating the security on PCs with the new OS. That process can be so expensive and disruptive that many companies are asking consultants like The Burton Group to evaluate whether it makes sense to leave end users on their present hardware and upgrade them by running Windows 7 as part of a virtual-desktop connection, Wolf explains.

Connecting end users to a new OS on the server can more than double the life of an aging PC, while still giving end users all the power and support for new software and new technology they want, according to Peter Graves, CIO of Ionia, Mich.-based Independent Bank.

Because about 90% of his bank's users already use shared-session virtual desktops from Citrix Systems, adding the other 10% is no great leap once the technology supports the software customization and peripherals they need, Graves says.

The same is not true of most companies, many of which have little history or understanding of virtual desktops and are just getting used to virtual servers, cloud computing and cost- and labor-saving IT tactics, Mann says.

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