Desktops go virtual

Virtualization has existed in one form or another for years, but Forrester Research predicts that, with advances in technology and concerns around security and IT complexity, desktop virtualization is poised to break onto the corporate desktop.

In its recent report, Desktop Virtualization Is The Future Of The Corporate PC, Forrester analysts David Friedlander and Simon Yates called virtualization “the most important technology to hit the corporate PC space since the thin client.”

In an interview, Friedlander said with traditional patching systems breaking down and IT managers having to manage systems with multiple images across different locations, virtualization could reduce the need for testing and allow for greater standardization.

“The pressure to patch has increased,” said Friedlander. “There’s a lot more concern about zero-day vulnerabilities that emerge right around the time a patch is available.” A number of technologies to enable virtualization are available or under development, including server-based computing environments like Citrix Access Presentation Server and Microsoft Terminal Server that virtualize multiple instances of an application on a single OS and let users access them remotely.

Application sandboxing includes application-streaming technology from companies like Softricity, which repackages applications into streamable bits that are cached on the desktop, as well as file system virtualization.

Another approach is creating an entire virtual instance of an OS on a host system, and here the players include VMware Ace, Ardence and Microsoft Virtual PC. A blade PC hardware approach is also being offered by vendors like HP; it sees the entire desktop instance run on a blade in the data centre.

While large institutions like banks and health care organizations and governments are starting to come on board, Friedlander said there will be unknown complexities and challenges for the early adopters. While newly developed applications should work well in a virtualized environment, Friedlander said porting legacy applications could prove challenging. Software vendors will also need to revamp their licensing schemes.

David Wright, area vice-president for Citrix Canada, agreed that the industry is at the beginning of the curve on enterprise virtualization. He said while virtualizing certain applications for remote access isn’t new, virtualizing everything while you’re at the office is, and it’s being driven by the increased availability of high-speed connectivity and wireless networks.

In a virtualized environment, Wright said, the access device isn’t important, as the server is doing the heavy lifting. In fact, Wright said virtualization is allowing many Citrix clients to extend the lifecycle of their desktops.

“We have clients using computers that are in some cases eight years old and they’re getting terrific speed because all the processing is being done on the server side,” said Wright. “They get to postpone the capital outlay that would normally be associated with buying new devices.”

Baker Hill, a provider of IT services to the banking industry, has used virtualization technology for years. Initially, the firm began using virtualization software from VMware to take control of a sprawling number of servers and workstations that were sucking power and becoming tough to cool, said Eric Beasley, senior network administrator at Baker Hill in Carmel, Ind. More recently, the firm has been looking at virtualizing its PCs and laptops for security reasons.

“Our professional services folks have client data in their possession that typically is of a financial nature and private,” said Beasley. “We were concerned that if Baker Hill were to have a laptop stolen, we would be held liable, because our laptops are unencrypted.”

They decided on VMware Ace, VMware’s desktop virtualization software. With VMware Ace, Beasley can create isolated virtual machines — software files that contain an operating system, applications and related data — on single physical systems and then encrypt specific virtual machines, rather than encrypting hardware.

“So we can create virtual machines that have the tools that our professional-service folks need to manipulate and store data,” he said.

“The entire [virtual machine] is encrypted, not the entire disk. We figured there was no point in encrypting the underlying host operating system and things like e-mail.”

QuickLink 062352 — with files from Network World (U.S.)

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