Desktop virtualization: Will Windows 7 change the game?

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

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Windows 7 itself should save money compared to Vista for its better management, security and stability as well as because it takes up less disk space than Vista, he says. This in turn could save costs in VDI implementations that involve hundreds or thousands of instances of the OS running in separate VMs, Woodgate explains.

On the negative side, Woodgate says, VDI implementations are more complex to configure than more standard PC-based networks. VDI networks require administrators to create virtual machines, permissions and policies governing how the VMs behave and the images from which VMs are launched, in addition to configuring and managing a standard PC network.

Some users agree with Woodgate's assessment about complexity. George Thornton, network operations manager for Texas' Montgomery Independent School District, and Landon Winburn, Citrix administrator for the University of Texas Medical Branch, a medical school, said that planning virtual desktop rollouts can be intimidating to IT groups that are just getting started.

Figuring out which of several delivery methods is most effective for specific types of users is difficult, as is creating just a few "golden" OS images most users can launch as "their" desktop, rather than try to keep a different one for each user, Thornton says.

Savings can be tricky to calculate

Further, Microsoft's Woodgate worries that companies can overestimate their potential cost savings with virtual desktops because they don't add the cost of gearing up the data center to support it.

"You're replacing the hard drive of a laptop, which is about the cheapest memory there is, with space in a Storage Area Network, which is about the most expensive memory there is," Woodgate adds.

On that point, Woodgate and Winburn disagree. Server- or SAN-based storage is secure, backed up, cheaper to maintain and far more rarely lost, broken or abused than a laptop, Winburn says.

And, Thornton says, even looking just at hardware costs, virtual desktops saved his organization about $100 per machine. The district wound up using the free XenServer rather than VMware's vSphere on the servers as was the original plan.

"With a thin client and Linux OS on it, half a gig of RAM, a little Atom processor, license for XenDesktop, plus the cost of a server divided by 30 -- we figured we could get 30 VMs per server -- we came up with about $550 per unit," Thornton explains. "Compare that to $650 to $700 for a regular PC. Thin clients have no moving parts, they're built to resist heat. We figure they'll last eight or 10 years, compared to three or four Gartner recommends for a PC. That raises the savings even more."

In zeroing in on cost as a crucial element in the virtualization decision process, Thornton and Winburn agree with the majority of IT shops. Indeed, Mann's survey at EMA showed that three quarters of companies interested in desktop virtualization primarily wanted to save on hardware and administration costs, and half expected to save on software.

That contrasts with server-based desktop virtualization, in which 70% of respondents said flexibility and agility -- the ability to add or reduce computing power, the ability to launch as many "new" virtual PCs as necessary at a moment's notice and the ability to give users access to "their" PC image or files no matter where they work -- was the main reason to switch.

Schools' big savings

As one of the fastest-growing districts in the country, the Montgomery Independent School District standardized two of the three schools it opened this fall on Citrix virtual desktops. In addition to saving $100 per unit and more than doubling the lifespan of his PCs, Thornton says there were other savings. "To support the other 2000 PCs in the district I have five people and they never get to sit down all day long. For the 700 [new virtual desktops] we have one person and he only works on it about an hour or two per day."

All of the district's 700 virtual desktops use XenDesktop on the client, connecting to XenServer servers on the back end. All but around 15% use shared-session connections. The rest, mostly in computer labs and in classes that need to use Adobe Photoshop, computer-assisted design software or other resource-intensive applications, have VDI setups that give them a dedicated virtual machine for additional power.

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