Cloud computing, SaaS, PaaS, VDI ... the only thing certain about how user workspaces will be delivered over the coming years is uncertainty.

Joe Hernick, IT Director

September 4, 2008

3 Min Read

All the alternate delivery mechanisms we've discussed offer a fundamental abstraction of OS, application code, and data from underlying hardware. A logical extension of this concept is that the hardware will no longer matter. An employee will be free to choose whatever computing platform he likes as long as it's capable of hosting an organization's delivery mechanism of choice, be it virtual desktop infrastructure via Remote Desktop Protocol, some flavor of desktop in a browser, or anything else. While desktops for the general employee pool will likely be standardized, mobile users and knowledge workers will rightly demand additional local processing power or app resources to meet specialized computing needs.

So, are we destined for a laissez-faire future, where companies shift from a rigid procurement process to a stipend-based model for IT acquisition? After all, if underlying hardware truly doesn't matter, why should IT care?

The concept isn't without precedent. Some companies let employees choose a cellular device, carrier, and plan and reimburse them for minutes spent on business calls. Companies regularly cover home Internet access for teleworkers, so how big a jump is it to let employees purchase a desktop or laptop of their choice with an embedded hypervisor? They could have a personal VM while also running a company-branded VM or remote instance. Security and reliability concerns could be mediated by hosted virtual security appliances, VM snapshot and rollback capabilities, and locked-down management or admin VMs as required.

It sounds like a pragmatic vision of the future. Too bad less than 10% of survey respondents believe it's likely to happen at their companies by 2010--fully 80% see this scenario as unlikely, or worse. Perhaps IT can maintain the level of control it has today for a few more years, but we're betting this is one battle users ultimately will win.

As for what comes next, centralized delivery of corporate and consumer environments to hypervisor-embedded hardware in a variety of form factors is likely by 2010. We say "likely" because the only thing certain about the desktop of the future is that no single, dominant computing approach will emerge over the next few years. Much as the data center is being transformed under the influence of virtualization and externally hosted offerings, the idea of a "standard" corporate computing platform will vary based on organizational, departmental, and user requirements.

chart: Forget About It

The strongest influence on desktop delivery will be server-hosted virtualization, and VMware currently holds the top position with VDI, just as the company is the market leader in server virtualization. Citrix has a long history in desktop services as well. However, the way VMs actually reach the user will not be standardized, and that chase is too close to call. If Hyper-V gains enterprise features and remains low-cost, and Midori comes to fruition, all bets are off.

As seen in last year's much-hyped rollout of the iPhone, the promise of near-ubiquitous wireless connectivity will forever change users' expectations about interacting with technology and accessing data, be it personal or corporate. Today's college graduates chafe under restrictive desktop lockdown and security policies; they're comfortable hosting their lives in public forums such as Facebook, Flickr, and Twitter, so a comfort level with hosting corporate data in public clouds isn't much of a stretch. They're used to accessing multiple applications on a wide variety of devices and will demand this capability from employers. IT, get ready.

Joe Hernick is an InformationWeek contributor and manages its virtualization lab. Write to him at [email protected].

Illustration by Sean McCabe

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About the Author(s)

Joe Hernick

IT Director

Joe Hernick is in his seventh year as director of academic technology at Suffield Academy, where he teaches, sits on the Academic Committee, provides faculty training and is a general proponent of information literacy. He was formerly the director of IT and computer studies chair at the Loomis Chaffee School in Windsor, CT, and spent 10 years in the insurance industry as a director and program manager at CIGNA.

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