No Rush to Virtual Desktops

Windows 7 may prompt some CIOs to try desktop virtualization, but widespread adoption is still years away.

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Microsoft's Dilemma

For its part, Microsoft seems to be playing both sides of the issue. The vendor supports desktop virtualization but is leery of anything that would threaten the primacy of the stand-alone PC as the main business computing platform.

Even Microsoft's desktop virtualization product manager doesn't seem comfortable with the idea that most or all of a major company's PCs could be virtualized.

"We expect to see a significant amount of deployment [of virtual desktops] on Windows 7 from CIOs looking for reduced costs in deploying applications on Windows 7," says Scott Woodgate, the director of Windows product management, who is leading the development of Microsoft's desktop virtualization technology.

While Microsoft is "excited to have an offering" in the virtual desktop market, the company believes customers "should virtualize for the right reasons -- for the flexibility it offers -- not just focus on the potential cost savings," Woodgate says.

On the negative side, VDI implementations are more complex to configure than more standard PC-based networks, he contends. 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 of the complexity of VDIs. George Thornton, network operations manager for the Montgomery Independent School District in Texas, and Landon Winburn, Citrix administrator for the University of Texas Medical Branch, say that planning virtual desktop rollouts can be intimidating to IT groups that are just getting started.

Figuring out which of several delivery methods will be most effective for specific types of users is difficult, as is creating just a few "golden" operating system images that most users can launch as "their" desktops, rather than trying to keep a different one for each user, Thornton says.

Further, Microsoft's Woodgate worries that companies may overestimate their potential cost savings with virtual desktops because they don't add in 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.

Calculating Savings 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 hard drive, Winburn says.

And, Thornton says, even looking just at hardware costs, virtual desktops saved his organization about $100 per machine.

The frugal school district used Citrix's free XenServer virtualization software on its servers. "With a thin client and Linux OS on it, half a gig of RAM, a little Atom processor, a 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," Thornton says. "We figure they'll last eight or 10 years, compared to the three or four Gartner recommends for a PC. That raises the savings even more."

It's not just K-12 education in Texas that's tapping the power of virtualization. At the University of Texas Medical Branch medical school, the support, hardware and network load are different, depending on what type of virtual desktop is involved, Winburn says. But any kind of virtual desktop delivers a far more efficient use of IT resources than putting all the power of a PC on every user's desk, he explains.

"The big difference is that you don't have to support the endpoint -- just the user settings and the network and servers," Winburn says. "I could put five or six PCs on a T1 at a clinic somewhere, and people are going to complain that Outlook is slow to open or it takes too long for browsing. I could throw 30 or 40 [Citrix thin clients] on that connection sharing one desktop image back in the data center, and they run like a champ."

Expanding Options

Traditional, terminal-services-based virtual desktops allow dozens or hundreds of end users to sign onto a single operating system and set of applications, all running on a back-end server. That keeps costs very low but limits or eliminates the ability of individual users to configure their own environments. It also keeps them from viewing bandwidth-intensive video, Flash animation or other multimedia, whether on the Web or on controlled internal applications. This happens because most desktop virtualization software doesn't have a mechanism to support it, Mann says.

That's changing with newer versions of the server software from both Citrix and Wyse Technology Inc. Citrix's recently released XenDesktop 4 supports not only multimedia, but also USB connections at the client side. The result is that end users can plug in peripherals like printers, scanners and memory sticks, or even fans, lights and desktop toys, if they like, Mann says.

VMware Inc., long the leader in the virtual server market, plans to release similar support in its VMware View VDI products early this year.

But even then, it will trail Citrix in the number of delivery methods it offers for virtual desktops and the breadth of products tailored to specific problems. One of the offerings that sets Citrix apart is Citrix Branch Repeater, which slashes the amount of bandwidth required for remote sessions of the notoriously chatty Exchange server, Mann says.

Another is Citrix's HDX technology, which eliminates one of the few barriers to using a virtual PC just like a real one, according to Graves. HDX allows users of VDI-based virtual desktops to run Web-based multimedia and to plug USB devices into their local machines, even if the software operating the peripherals and the browser is running in a data center somewhere, Graves says.

Still Tactical

Given all the variables that are still in play, there probably won't be an explosion of Windows 7-inspired desktop virtualization in corporate America anytime soon, says IDC analyst Michael Rose.

Traditional shared-session virtual desktops will remain popular in their usual niches, whether with Windows 7 or other operating systems, Rose says. It will take time, however, even for companies eager to use newer VDI systems, to add the network and server capacity they require.

"It would involve significant spending in the data center to accommodate adding vast numbers of users on virtual machines," he says. "Desktop virtualization will continue largely to be a tactical technology, though as it moves more toward the endpoint device -- handhelds and other nontraditional hardware -- there's more of a possibility it will become very common."

Bottom line: Windows 7 could be a catalyst for some additional virtualization, given improvements in the technology that have helped mitigate concerns over performance, lack of personalization and other issues.

However, this technology isn't seamlessly stitched together yet. Administrators still have to master the nuances and best practices, and few will want to make the transition to virtualization at the same time they convert to Windows 7.

Fogarty, a former Computerworld editor, is a freelance writer covering IT, science and engineering. Contact him at kfogarty@technologyreporting.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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