Suddenly, virtual desktops are a real contender

Cost, flexibility making the case for mainstream enterprises

Once a drab, also-ran solution for call centers, schools and other undemanding environments, virtual desktops are suddenly hot, with vendors touting products aimed at mainstream corporate information workers. Not only are the latest wares more powerful and flexible than previous offerings, but vendors say they're also cheaper and easier to integrate.

The recent releases of Windows Vista and Office 2007 have some companies rethinking how to deploy future upgrades. Others are in a receptive mood after positive experiences with first-wave virtual desktop products such as Microsoft Corp.’s Terminal Services and Citrix Systems Inc.’s Presentation Server, as well as server virtualization software from VMware Inc.

Under the big top

"We’re definitely looking at all of the options," said Michael Koval, senior vice president and CIO at Long & Foster Real Estate Inc. Besides using VMware on the server side, the Fairfax, Va.-based firm has used Presentation Server for the past seven years to deliver hosted applications to more than 3,500 employees and 16,000 affiliated real estate agents. Besides centralizing management, Citrix also allows Koval to dole out applications on an as-needed basis, reducing the number of licenses he needs to buy.

Citrix, which acquired application streaming provider Ardence Inc. in December, now claims to be the only vendor offering all forms of virtual desktops -- from terminal servers to app streaming to desktop virtualization -- managed in a common infrastructure. Koval says that’s good news.

"It’s definitely more attractive, because then I don’t have to go upstairs to ask for money to overhaul my entire infrastructure," he said. "I picked Citrix many years ago because they already had a lot of services under one roof. That trend has only continued."

TCO, easier deployment seal the deal

Other vendors introducing products include Virtual Iron Software Inc., which is teaming with Provision Networks Inc. to provide desktop virtualization software for $120 per desktop. The vendors claim that their offering, which stores a user’s personalized desktop (including data files, applications and operating system) in a virtual machine on a server, is cheaper than managing conventional PCs. "There is so much awareness of the [total cost of ownership] at the desktop level, we knew we had to come in below that," said Mike Grandinetti, chief marketing officer at Virtual Iron.

Other vendors tout easier deployment. ClearCube Inc. said last week that the latest version of its PC blade software now includes a connection broker that can manage virtualized desktops created by VMware software.

While deploying desktop virtualization was technically possible using VMware alone, "logistical hurdles" made it cumbersome for most users, according to independent analyst Brian Madden

"The smart vendors took a lot of notes and went to developers to make this happen," Madden said. "That’s why you’re seeing a wave of products just now hitting the market."

But most of the products remain point solutions, offering application streaming or terminal services or desktop virtualization, but not all three, said Madden. Citrix is the only vendor to have announced a "true end-to-end offering," he noted.

"VMware is focused on the underlying infrastructure. While Microsoft technically has everything, their products are managed by three distinct product groups, meaning users still need to cobble together a solution," he said. "So it’s Citrix’s game to lose, no doubt."

A casino not taking the gamble

Many users, of course, remain on the sidelines. "We have not embraced the virtual desktop environments yet," said Steve Bastille, IT director for server and desktop systems at Station Casinos Inc.

The Las Vegas casino operator would seem to be a good candidate for virtual desktops: It has 3,500 Windows-based PCs at its various properties that are shared by 15,000 employees over three work shifts per day. Many of the PCs are lightly used by employees; 30% don’t even have Microsoft Office installed. Moreover, Station Casinos already has a central data center and expertise managing it.

Still, Bastille sees no economic incentive to move today.

"We have not been able to justify the additional server hardware costs and infrastructure needed," he said, pointing to network upgrades and other licenses that would need to be purchased.

Others say that technologies such as desktop virtualization remain too early in the hype cycle for them.

"I’m a proof-of-concept guy," said Frank Yawn, IT manager at Time-Warner Cable's office in Greensboro, N.C. Despite having used Ardence software for more than two years to stream applications to 400 PCs in Time Warner’s call center, Yawn has little interest in adding other types of virtual desktops to his existing mix. "Whenever you introduce something

new," he said, "rarely does the cost go down."

Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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