Despite longtime promises that virtualized desktop infrastructure (VDI) is ready for broad adoption, companies have been wary of moving too quickly into uncharted waters.
The concept of a virtual desktop has been gaining appeal among technology managers for the past several years, but for various reasons virtual desktops haven't been broadly adopted. Recent advances in technology, along with the advent of cloud computing and a faster Internet, have finally come together to create an environment that may finally make the virtual desktop a reality across the enterprise.
Virtual desktop infrastructure, or VDI, has been gaining traction in just the past year at an accelerated pace. The combination of the cloud, an array of new thin clients, and new software technologies that provide for user customization may finally create the conditions that organizations need to make the virtual desktop ripe for adoption. Estimates vary, but according to Gartner, there will be 20 million virtual desktops by 2014.
Companies that offer thin-client hardware, such as Dell, HP, and IBM, and software companies that are developing the desktop middleware and operating systems such as Citrix Systems, Devon IT, and IBM, all feel they are on the verge of offering businesses a less costly, less complex, and more energy-efficient solution today than at any time since the traditional desktop achieved popularity.
To some, the idea of a virtual desktop is another form of client/server computing. Others see it as an embellishment on the one-to-many server-terminal design. As with many advances in technology, however, the concept of VDI has many subtle refinements today that will impact both user and IT productivity. Last August, Citrix, which recently acquired a company called RingCube, added the company's personalization technology to a new release of the Citrix Systems software. In XenDesktop 5.5, Citrix has integrated RingCube's vDisk technology into its desktop virtualization platform. V5.5 is enhanced with more than 150 new features, and the vDisk addition allows users to customize their virtual desktops, a feature that some companies feel is essential to ensure user adoption. Citrix is adding the enhancement as a no-cost upgrade in order to help convince customers who have been riding the fence that now is finally the right time to buy.
The first graphical thin clients became popular back in the mid-1990s, but due to bandwidth requirements their use was limited largely to LANs. At the time, the Internet wasn't fast enough to handle the data requirements these clients commanded, but their lower cost continued to make them appealing in certain situations. With the increased access to high-speed Internet, and a greater capacity of the Internet backbone itself, the ability of thin clients to access services in the cloud—such as Microsoft Office 365 productivity suite, or IBM LotusLive—has now becomes a practical reality.
At one time, the definition of a "thin client" was fairly well understood. It was more than a terminal but less than a PC. It didn't have a hard disk and its processor was a generation or two behind those found on current PCs. Today, thin client might very well apply to any device that accesses the Internet. Some say that the smartphone is a form of thin client. So is a netbook. Today there are mobile Internet devices (MID) such as the Sony Vaio P, dedicated devices such as TiVo, and hybrid devices such as the Dell Latitude E 4200 with a Linux-based client built into the hardware of a standard office laptop. Amazon just announced the new Kindle Fire with its Android operating system and access to the Android Market solution center.
Devon IT is a leading provider of thin client hardware, software, and virtual desktop solutions. Joe Makoid, Devon IT's president, said in a recent blog that, "The beginning of the VDI explosion happened early on August 16, 2011. This was the day the world woke up to Google buying one of the world's most iconic companies (Motorola) [The announcement was the day prior]." Makoid says that Google is probably not interested in phone hardware. What it is interested in, however, is end-point computing.
"Is Google getting into phone hardware? I doubt it," Makoid says. "But, Google is signaling the dawn of a new era. Will Microsoft hold a dominant share of end-point computing for the foreseeable future? Absolutely. However, Microsoft now knows it's no longer the only big player. Apple, Google and others are in the game–big time. What does this all mean? Virtual desktop computing will explode. It's the only way an enterprise, a small to medium business, a school, or hospital will deliver and manage their end-user desktops," says Makoid.
While Makoid's view of the market may reinforce his company's business model, there is little question that thin clients today can better satisfy user and IT's expectations than at any time in the past. Since thin clients are considerably less expensive than PCs, adoption can save corporations money on hardware. Since they are easier to administer, they can save money on personnel. They are far more energy-efficient saving yet more money and aligning nicely with many corporations' green earth policies. Cost dynamics alone would lead one to believe that the virtual desktop and thin clients are just around the corner.
The truth is, however, companies who have tried implementing virtual desktops have found that it is not as simple as it looks. Surveys show that more than 95 percent of mid- to large companies are experimenting with virtual desktops. Adoption rates, however, have been far lower. Issues of complexity, latency, user satisfaction, and training requirements have slowed implementation.
A recent Forrester Research study commissioned by Dimension Data showed that the number of virtual desktop deployments is expected to grow from 27 percent to 46 percent during the next two years. But for the moment, most organizations' existing deployments touch fewer than 500 employees. The surveyed companies indicated, however, that they do intend to scale up those deployments to thousands, and eventually tens of thousands of units, during the next two years.
Among the other survey findings was that organizations of all types, sizes, and locations are embracing client virtualization. The survey also showed that IT managers are willing to embrace hybrid architectures if they better serve the needs of their segmented workforces. The survey also exposed limitations on internal staff's confidence and ability to implement a large-scale desktop virtualization plan. It thus concluded that IT executives should turn to systems integrators to deploy and manage virtualized desktop projects. This is due in part to what Forrester concluded that neither the data center nor the desktop team has sufficient experience or visibility to make the decisions required in the planning and deployment process, nor do they have the tools to manage the resulting hybrid environments.
IBM may have realized the advances that companies around it were making in the area of desktop virtualization when it decided to partner with Wyse Technology. It has been making major strides ever since to avoid the perception of being left behind the desktop virtualization power curve and wants to make sure that its customers have the latest in VDI technology.
Last fall, IBM announced an installation in Italy at Call & Call, one of the country's largest call centers. Using IBM's Smart Business Desktop Cloud and technology from Wyse, Call & Call would agree to migrate nearly 1,000 workstations from among five sites across Italy to a centralized location. After an earlier foray into the world of virtualized desktops, Call & Call realized it could improve security, increase operational efficiency through the ability to centrally manage workstations, reduce the need for device management, lower energy consumption, and simplify software license management—all by moving to VDI.
"The savings in virtualizing our desktops allowed us to improve the capacity of each system and provided a 90 percent reduction in energy savings," says Fabio Mattaboni, chief information officer at Call & Call. "But the most important benefit has been our savings in personnel costs for deploying, operating, and managing software and systems." The company has more than 1600 workstations spread among eight branches throughout Italy.
While many recognize Citrix Systems as being on the leading edge of VDI technology, Wyse is also a global leader in what it calls "cloud client computing." Wyse has shipped more than 20 million desktop units and has more than 200 million people "interacting" with its products. Besides IBM, Wyse also partners with Citrix as well as other leading vendors including Cisco, Microsoft, and VMware.
One of IBM's recent announcements was its Virtual Desktop for Smart Business, a workforce mobility offering that gives users anytime/anywhere access to personal desktops from mobile devices. The solution allows Windows or Linux desktops to be hosted and managed centrally and be deployed on a customer's infrastructure or through a business partner's private cloud hosted environment. The desktop has self configuring, self managing and self protecting features that enable easy installation and management, plus continuous backup and recovery, according to IBM.
"The Virtual Desktop expands the time and place where people can access information, contribute ideas and support customers," says Dan Cerutti, general manager, IBM Smart Business. "Together with our partners, we are bringing the power of virtual computing to smaller companies seeking greater agility, while freeing up critical IT resources."
IBM's Virtual Desktop for Smart Business is part of a new family of offerings from the company called Solutions for Smart Business. The group is designed for small and medium-sized organizations with limited IT staff that want to take advantage of specialized IT business solutions without the complexity or cost of traditional technology packages. Other offerings in the group include IBM Application Manager for Smart Business, for performance monitoring, and IBM Service Manager for Smart Business, which provides service desk problem management using built-in problem-solving tools.
The appeal of the virtualized desktop for business include a number of benefits: reduction in IT costs with improved productivity, easy distribution of software, better user support, and reduced energy consumption. When vendors are able to deliver technology that accomplishes these ends without a highly complex infrastructure or major user training hiccups, and when companies can clearly see their return on investment, then the natural adoption of virtualized desktops will come quickly across the broader corporate landscape.