Not your father

Desktop virtualization isn’t a new concept, but the evolution of the IT environment has positioned the new wave of virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) tools as a “potentially transformative” technology, according to researchers from Yankee Group Research Inc.


“VDI is a market category that’s been around a long time,” said Zeus Kerravala, senior vice-president of enterprise research with Yankee Group. Arguably, long-ago mainframe environments, with a centralized compute platform feeding terminals with I/O and display, were VDI environments, he said during an online seminar, The Virtual Desktop Revolution, on Tuesday.


“The mainframe was the computing platform that best suited our environment” at the time, Kerravala said. Companies tended to have centralized headquarters and computing resources in that era, but as branch- and department-based computing came to the fore, mainframes were displaced by the client-server model.


With the spread of broadband and wireless connectivity, though, we’re now in an “anywhere IT” environment. “A user’s location is no longer somewhere that’s predictable,” he said. Endpoints can be notebooks or netbooks or desktops or smart phones, and “trying to build code for each of those environments is difficult.”

VDI is “a very important component” in the drive to provide a consistent end-point experience regardless of location and device, Kerravala said.


One of the barriers to adoption of VDI is the inconsistent experience users have had with virtualization and remote access technologies that purport to do the same thing, said Phil Hochmuth, senior analyst with Yankee Group. That’s why it’s important to define what VDI is, and what it isn’t.


In a VDI environment, the endpoint operating system, data and applications are hosted on a server and run as a virtual machine, he said. The end-point provides display and I/O, but the data centre actually does the execution, Hochmuth said.


On the other hand, Citrix Systems Inc.’s Metaframe, Microsoft Corp.’s Windows Remote Desktop Services and virtual instances of Windows on a Mac, for example, are not VDI, he said.


End-users are increasingly using latency-sensitive applications like voice over IP, video and multimedia – applications that didn’t fare well in terminal server environments, Hochmuth said. “The biggest barrier has been the performance,” he said, but those objections are historically based. The technology has changed.


“If people take a second look, they might find a different experience,” Hochmuth said.


In a recent Yankee Group survey, 64 per cent of enterprises had a VDI project in pilot or production, up from 22 per cent last year, Kerravala said. Leading verticals include financial institutions and health care – used primarily as a security tool to keep sensitive data from moving off-site – and task-work environments like call centres, where a simple set of applications can be replicated over and over, Kerravala said.


But most of those organizations have less than a third of their desktops virtualized, he said.


According to Hochmuth, the task-worker environment is best-suited for VDI right now. He broke down user environments into four categories, ranking their suitability for VDI from “hot” to “cool.”


While the task worker environment is “hot,” information workers are “lukewarm,” he said. “This is Phase 2 of a virtual desktop deployment,” he said – information workers are running a basic set of productivity applications.


“This is a really good litmus test” of a VDI environment, because these workers will want more personalization. While server virtualization is all about a standardized image of what a server should look like, virtualized desktops allow more personalization on the front end, while keeping a consistent image on the back end, he said.


Power information workers – designers, CAD/CAM workers and stock traders, for example, often working with multiple displays – are cool to virtualization. There’s a demand for high-end graphics and real-time video that’s very sensitive to latency. For a trader, “latency on the wire can cost a lot of money,” Hochmuth said.


Even further down the temperature chart is the mobile worker. One big issue is the support of offline work – when you’re on a plane, for example, will your apps work? In future, Hochmuth said, VDI will feature a “check-out” facility, wherein users can download the virtual machine image of their desktop, work on it locally, then check it back in when they can connect to the office.


Hochmuth said that VDI will cause another wave of IT management/workforce integration. “It’s a cross-stack technology,” he said, much like unified communications. With UC, the applications and the network sides of the house converge into one workforce. VDI will require the convergence of the desktop support and network group functions.


Right now, said Kerravala, VDI is a largely operational play, oriented at moving away from purchasing and maintaining client devices and leveraging security benefits, such as the protection of intellectual property and the prevention of data leaks and theft.


Enterprises should break from traditional thinking and understand where VDI fits in the landscape, he said. “You need to think of it as a strategic technology,” he said.


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Dave Webb
Dave Webb
Dave Webb is a freelance editor and writer. A veteran journalist of more than 20 years' experience (15 of them in technology), he has held senior editorial positions with a number of technology publications. He was honoured with an Andersen Consulting Award for Excellence in Business Journalism in 2000, and several Canadian Online Publishing Awards as part of the ComputerWorld Canada team.

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