ROI expectations at heart of virtual desktop war

With the server virtualization well on its way to widespread usage in enterprise IT shops, a new battle is being waged among vendors for your desktops.

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Alex Topitsch, director of advanced solutions at Woodbridge, Ont.-based IT services firm Soroc Technology Inc., said many of his clients are treating 2010 as a “business case year” for desktop virtualization. He said the benefits for clients include a more secure environment, better uptime for desktops, stronger data protection capabilities, and if done correctly, a financial benefit.

“The technology was a lot more mature than server virtualization when it first came on-board,” he said, adding that day one benefits include a consolidated and efficient desktop operating environment.

Historically, the biggest inhibitor to the technology has been the latency factor, especially when rolling out virtual desktops across geographically spread branch offices, he said. This issue has been addressed recently by a variety of vendors.

One such vendor looking to sell customers on the virtual desktop is VMware Inc.

Scott Davis, CTO of VMware’s desktop business unit, argued that desktop virtualization is now becoming mainstream, with many of its customers currently undertaking full-scale deployments.

“Of course, we’re still in the early days and we see more growing over the next few years,” he said. Every workload will be running in a virtual environment in a few years time, Davis added.

One common complaint being hurdled at virtualization vendors is that desktop virtualization projects will struggle to give enterprises a positive return on investment.

Topitsch said that companies should realistically expect to get a strong ROI within three to five years of a desktop virtualization rollout.

But for Davis, the cost savings can actually occur even faster.

“Desktop virtualization is not that compelling on the (capital expenditure) side,” he said. “It’s the operational benefits where virtualization really shines.”

Davis cited rapid provisioning, improved business continuity, the ability to easily recover from software configuration failures, and strong security and compliance capabilities as the immediate benefits.

Several large deployments, Davis said, have justified operational expenditure benefits based on power savings alone.

A company that rolls out modern thin client devices — which operate at two per cent of the power consumption rate as a regular desktop — would see huge operational savings, he added. These savings would outweigh the costs of adding a few servers to account for the storage needs of these virtual desktops, Davis said.

But not all virtualization vendors agree with VMware’s idealistic view on the virtual desktop.

Jeff Woolsey, principal group program manager at Microsoft Corp., said that even though server virtualization has been maturing over the last 10 years, worldwide adoption among businesses still hasn’t reached 20 per cent.

“And with server virtualization, the benefits are crystal clear,” he said.

Woolsey argued that the desktop is very different and that any company that simply looks at server virtualization and applies it to the desktop will find itself struggling to meet its goals.

“The ROI numbers we’ve seen bandied around are very optimistic,” he said. “If you did everything really well, breaking even is a pretty good state. Some of our early customer feedback shows people are pretty disappointed in the ROI.”

Woolsey said any company taking their unmanaged desktop PCs and moving them onto an unmanaged virtual environment is missing the bigger picture if they expect to experience cost savings.

“You need an end-to-end management solution that includes an application strategy as well,” he said, referring to Microsoft’s App-V tool.

Harry Labana, vice-president and CTO of desktop and application virtualization at Citrix Inc., expressed a similar view, hyping his company’s XenApp product.

“People are not implementing virtual desktop infrastructure for the cost savings right now,” he said, adding that companies are concerned about operational efficiencies, better management capabilities and stronger security.

Interestingly, this is a point that Citrix, Microsoft and VMware all agree on.

For Davis, one of the major reasons a company would be disappointed in its ROI with desktop virtualization is that they aren’t adapting their processes and procedures to the new technology.

If your storage team only allows for virtual desktops to be rolled out once a month — which might be the process they use in the physical world — IT managers will find it nearly impossible to achieve a positive ROI, he said.

“You need to embrace the virtual world and change your procedures accordingly,” Davis said.

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