Virtual Desktop May Take Awhile To Become Real

Few are using the technology, but momentum is building as vendors like HP expand offerings.
Virtualization continues to surge into the data center, but it's the desktop where the next round of advances is expected. For now, uptake appears to be slow.

When 200-some attendees at IDC's Virtualization 2.0 Forum last week were asked who among them were virtualizing the desktop, only two or three hands shot up. That's in sharp contrast to the data center, where 63% of market leader VMware's 20,000 customers plan to virtualize at least half of their x86 servers by 2009, according to president Diane Greene.

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Many companies have little understanding of desktop virtualization's benefits. But that should change as vendors expand their offerings. The latest is Hewlett-Packard, which this week is announcing that it's teaming with Provision Networks to extend its desktop virtualization capabilities.


John Anderla, chief systems architect at Kimberly-Clark, is among those who see the benefits of desktop virtualization. The consumer goods company hired 200 people in India a few months ago to do application development and provided them with virtual desktops because of the technology's security features.

"We give them our standard desktop, but we provide a container for security," Anderla said. A virtual machine's container is a set of software-imposed definitions and limits that restrict access to physical resources or data. The virtual desktops give the offshore programmers access to Kimberly-Clark's code while ensuring that data never leaves the company's servers, he said.

Besides security, desktop virtualization offers cost savings. Most iterations have desktop applications running on a central server as a substitute for those on a user's desktop. They can be centrally patched or upgraded, and new users can be set up without support personnel making trips to the user's machine.

Desktop virtualization substitutes central servers running desktop apps for hundreds or thousands of new PCs. When it comes time to upgrade for a Windows Vista migration, IT can install a few new servers instead of buying every user a new PC.

Virtual desktops also can cut by 40% the $5,000 most companies spend a year supporting the average desktop user, said Citrix Systems VP Nabeel Youakim.

What's Driving VirtualizationThat's true in part because virtualization makes it easier to provision new units. "I can create a virtual server in 15 minutes. It's almost godlike," says Harold Shapiro, technology architect at Warner Bros. Entertainment, a $13 billion-a-year subsidiary of Time Warner. Shapiro uses VMware's virtual machine generation and management suite, Virtual Infrastructure 3. Desktop administrators could likewise clone virtual machines for new employees with rapid-fire ease.

In its partnership with Provision Networks, HP will resell that company's Virtual Access Suite to give users access to desktop apps via terminal services. Virtual Access Suite supplies a connection broker for hundreds or thousands of users to tie in to central servers, an approach best suited to low-end users who run basic apps such as word processing and e-mail.

HP also will use VMware's Virtual Infrastructure 3 suite to carve a central server into 10 or 12 virtual machines that can be customized. Provision's suite will let administrators subdivide virtual machines for specific user groups and automatically identify those users and assign them a machine. Provision's Virtual Access Suite also lets HP tie power users to blade servers. It recognizes the power user connection, and, instead of assigning a virtual machine from a pool, it grants rights to a customized one on the blade. The blade acts as a powerful desktop machine, but it's in the data center and can be provisioned with new apps or upgraded without going to a user's desktop.

HP isn't alone in this area. Startups XDS, SWsoft, Virtual Iron Software, and Kidaro also offer forms of desktop virtualization, making it likely that more hands will go up when the question about implementing it is asked next year.