Desktop virtualization can refer to a number of technologies. They range from consumer-centric remote desktop apps that enable users to access home computers while on the road, to enterprise-scale VDI deployments that host virtual desktops on a server.
The concept has always posed clear value propositions. For many businesses, virtualization has provided flexibility when providing each user the resources of a full PC was too costly. It has also given IT managers more control and enabled the use of thin clients, which are more secure than other endpoints because they don't store any data locally.
But thanks to BYOD and the popularity of tablets, desktop virtualization's benefits are growing even more varied.
[ Is desktop virtualization delaying Windows 8 adoption? Read What Desktop Virtualization Means To Windows 8. ]
Want to allow employees to choose their own computers even though your business relies on Windows XP? Some sort of VDI deployment could do the trick. Need to use a Windows application on an iPad? Desktop virtualization can help.
Virtualizing a Windows session on an Android or iOS tablet doesn't quite replicate the native experience, but the divide is dwindling many ways. Some products boast latency times low enough to support gaming, for instance, which means for most intents and purposes that the VM is just as responsive as the native OS.
It's also become more common for products to incorporate touch gestures into the virtualized session. If Windows 8 is running in a virtual machine on an iPad, for example, some products can direct the tablet to recognize Windows-specific touch gestures, such as swiping from the right side to reveal the Search charm.
In this anywhere, anytime world, users expect that data and applications will be available wherever they go, and on whatever device they're using. Desktop virtualization is helping some companies meet this expectation. It's not the only approach vying for IT's attention, however.
Cloud-based services are offering many of the same benefits. Microsoft is already embracing perpetual access to data with Office 365, and Steve Ballmer has plans to bring the attitude to the entire Windows ecosystem. Apple and Google are moving in similar directions as well, with established services such as Google Docs and iCloud along with newer ventures such as Chrome OS and Apple's new Web-based version of iWork, which is currently in beta.
But these cloud-based approaches provide access to only certain types of content and software. Until that changes, desktop virtualization provides an interesting option.
There are downsides to desktop virtualization, of course. Windows is involved in most desktop virtualization projects, which means IT departments have to negotiate a potentially bewildering variety of licensing options, most of which contain fine print that can't be overlooked. There are also technical questions, such as whether to make each work's virtual session a derivative of a single desktop, or whether to link each user to a distinct virtual machine.
For mobile devices, there's also the question of how much access users need. If a user simply needs to view and annotate Office documents on an iPhone or Galaxy Tab, the devices are already well-equipped. If a user wants to handle Excel spreadsheets on an iPad in the same way she does on a PC, then VDI becomes more attractive.
But given the small screens on most tablets, who wants to deal with thousands of rows and columns on such a small device anyway?
Perhaps more users than one might guess. Splashtop, which makes remote desktop products, conducted a study of its users and found not only that customers remotely access Microsoft Office applications on a regular basis, but also that users work for an average of 1.5 hours each time they spin up the virtualized software.
Still, Forrester analyst David Johnson said in an interview that desktop virtualization's ultimate BYOD utility is limited. "It's likely a stopgap measure," he said.
For mobile users, VDI is useful for on-demand access to certain resources, such as health record systems, and for access to information in a pinch, Johnson said. But it's often not practical for heavy-duty productivity.
Johnson said users still prefer the feature richness of native tablet experiences, and that many business processes will evolve in mobile-friendly ways. He pointed out that for developers and software makers, business apps that provide a rich tablet experience are a major opportunity.
"The Windows desktop is not going away, but the interaction model and way people are working is changing," Johnson said. "There will still be a need for Windows applications, but the importance is being recast."