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Virtual Desktops Are For Real

We tested nine products that will transform how IT provides end user PCs.
Wave Of The Future Or Another Fad?

Server virtualization is one of the few technologies that have managed to live up to its hype. Can its virtual desktop cousin do the same, or is VDI destined to fizzle out like a wet firecracker? Our forecast says VDI has a good future in enterprise IT. Here are our reasons why.

First, when a user calls the help desk with a laptop toasted by spyware, you can count on at least a couple of hours working on recovery, if it's even possible. With VDI, a machine infested with malware can be made to vanish and reappear faster than an end user can say "abracadabra." Assuming roaming profiles are available, the complete user environment can be restored right away. As a result, IT stands to gain significant time-savings in supporting the user population.

Other improvements include easier upgrades of applications and operating systems for end users. No need to push a thousand copies of a new app or OS over the network. Simply create a new set of master images, and your users will find it served up hot and fresh the next time they access their machine.

Second, VDI overcomes some limitations with terminal services. Terminal services offer similar opportunities for improved desktop management, but some legacy applications don't work well in a terminal services environment. Virtual desktops give you a robust option here. By sandboxing the application within the virtual desktop, you can deploy the legacy application on the platform for which it was designed to run without impacting your existing terminal server environment.

Another issue is that terminal services often don't support customized desktops, a chief complaint of many people exposed to the technology for the first time. VDI solves this issue.

Finally, your organization can more easily support multiple operating systems for end users in a VDI environment. Want to expose your users to Windows 7 in a controlled way? Serve 'em a virtual desktop. Want to prove to your CTO that Ubuntu Linux lacks the driver support required to be a viable desktop OS alternative? Don’t just tell him, serve him a virtual desktop and show him.

VDI Caveats

The benefits of VDI are indisputable. However, while VDI is a sound technical solution for some serious IT issues, it’s not the only solution. Many environments can get by using a combination of presentation and application virtualization, so we can’t honestly say that VDI will be a game changer on par with server virtualization.

And beware of vendors touting the savings you’ll realize by virtualizing desktops, because there are plenty of hidden costs. First, you’ll need serious server hardware to hand out virtual desktops, and you better have plenty of storage, too. Then there’s the hypervisor and VDI broker licensing costs to consider. Vendors sometimes hype the fact that with VDI you can deploy thin clients as a replacement for more expensive fat-client machines to save on hardware costs. But last we checked, a decent thin-client machine is just as expensive as a low-end desktop/laptop PC. If your plan is to deploy $200 netbooks as a replacement for $1,000 business laptops going forward, then you're sure to reap significant savings, but most organizations aren’t ready for that step.

The result? The net cash savings that you thought you’d see from VDI might be more difficult to realize than you think. A better approach is to roll out a VDI trial to a select group and prove its efficacy. If VDI meets a need, budget dollars will follow.

Even with those caveats in mind, we believe VDI will have a place in the enterprise in one form or another. Within the next decade, it's possible most organizations will subscribe to cloud-based virtual desktops running a thin OS hosted on a supercomputer running in a faraway land. Cloud computing, cloud storage, virtual desktops, and massively virtualized infrastructures are converging, and that convergence will change the way we deliver the desktop. It's just a question of when.

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Randy George ([email protected]) is an industry analyst covering security and infrastructure topics.