Virtualisation shifts to the desktop

Definitions vary, but desktop virtualisation eases management headaches

Virtualisation giants VMware and Citrix are reporting increasing interest in desktop virtualisation and growing uptake of the relatively recent technology in New Zealand. However, for the local mid-market, the cost benefits of a virtualised desktop environment are not quite there yet, says one ICT services provider.

Desktop virtualisation is different from simple remote desktop solutions, which typically are costly and can result in high levels of user dissatisfaction, says Tim Dacombe-Bird, VMware’s New Zealand regional manager.

“A centralised desktop deployment model … such as a hosted desktop that utilises a shared server operating system, like Terminal Services, meets the IT departments requirements of centralised desktops. However, the user experience suffers from a severe lack of flexibility as these environments must be tightly locked down due to their shared underlying operating system,” he says.

A single change by one user, for example, could impact all users connected to the same server.

“Desktop virtualisation solves the issues of both the business and the user experience, by providing centralised deployments with complete flexibility as users have come to expect,” he says.

In the past year, VMware has seen “strong interest” in desktop virtualisation from nearly all of its existing virtualised datacentre customers in New Zealand, says Dacombe-Bird. Adoption has been in line with expectations following the release of VMware View 4 late last year, he says.

“This was a major release for our desktop business,” says Dacombe-Bird. “The inclusion of the new communications protocol, PC-over-IP (PCoIP) has removed the last technical barrier to adoption, as PCoIP significantly improves the performance of multimedia and Flash applications.”

Costs drop

According to Citrix’s Chris Lockery, interest in desktop virtualisation is high and local adoption is “definitely increasing”.

Citrix’s customers often start out looking at specific projects and then expand adoption to other areas of the business, because of positive user experiences and realised benefits, he says.

The company’s desktop virtualisation customers come from a wide range of sectors, including government, retail, health, service providers and the corporate sector, he says. But the most successful sector in recent months has been education. Lockery puts this down to Citrix XenDesktop 4’s licensing model and its Flexcast features, which offer more options for desktop virtualisation over and above the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure – such as hosted shared desktops, local streamed desktops, virtual applications to installed desktops and, in the near future, local virtual machine-based desktops, he says.

Xen – which Citrix acquired with its XenSource acquisition in October 2007 – is widely seen as the major rival to VMware for desktop deployments.

A contributing factor to the sparked interest in desktop virtualisation could be that the cost of delivering a virtualised desktop has dropped over the past 12 months, says Dacombe-Bird. With the View 4 platform, VMware has reduced the storage requirement and increased the density of desktops that can be deployed to a single x86-based server.

“This means less storage and servers – leading to reduced up-front cost,” says Dacombe-Bird.

He can’t reveal the specific number of local customers who have rolled out desktop virtualisation, but says the company has virtualised desktops deployed in a “significant percentage” of its top 100 customers, with a number of pilots running or about to start, for example the AUT pilot. In fact, desktop virtualisation is one of VMware New Zealand’s strategic focuses for 2010, with many proof-of-concept deployments running over the next three months, he says.

Cost benefits not there yet

Competition locally comes mainly in the form of organisations that operate in “business as usual” mode, says Dacombe-Bird, which is to say they continue to deploy fat PCs in the same way they have done for the past 20 years, “without understanding the cost and performance benefits of moving to desktop virtualisation”.

A local ICT services provider sees the situation differently. Mid-market companies understand the benefits but there are still too many hurdles, says Jeff Herbert, managing director of Auckland-based Intrical.

Intrical’s clients are mainly middle-market organisations with less than 300 employees. While the company provides virtualisation solutions to a number of local customers, none of them are doing desktop virtualisation, says Herbert.

He believes people understand the potential benefits of running a virtualised desktop environment but, “unless you have a thin client environment already, the change is significant”. In his experience, the initial cost of rolling out desktop virtualisation is the main hurdle, even though the expectation is that a virtualised environment would pay for itself within a couple of years.

There are also questions around the security of the infrastructure, with the recent Google hack incident fuelling debate about the safety of storing data in datacentres accessed over the internet.

“What if the provider’s infrastructure fails? These things all add up in an IT manager’s mind. The technology is there but for many middle-market companies, it’s not quite ready yet,” says Herbert.

He thinks many will wait for the technology to mature and the costs to come down further before reassessing the situation.

Windows 7 boost?

According to Lockery there are “misconceptions” around desktop virtualisation.

“For example, desktop virtualisation is not the same as server virtualisation – thought needs to be given to the user experience, management of applications and integration with existing infrastructure solutions,” he says.

There is also the common misconception that desktop virtualisation won’t handle graphical applications, says Lockery. Citrix’s HDX high-definition technology addresses just this, aiming to ensure a good user experience for all applications, including graphics and video.

Desktop virtualisation has come a long way functionality-wise, says Dacombe-Bird. Aiming to deliver a rich user experience, VMware’s View 4 release has removed some of the technical hurdles, he says.

“Costs have also reduced substantially with efficiencies in storage and desktop density. The last hurdle is really an organisation’s motivation to change the desktop delivery solution that is in place and working. We expect this change to be forced upon a lot of organisations as OS support expires and an upgrade is required.

“The recent release of Windows 7 has been a disruptive event that has made organisations evaluate how they will deliver their next desktop operating system, and desktop virtualisation will be a key part of many of our customers’ strategies,” says Dacombe-Bird.

Explainer

What is desktop virtualisation?

Desktop virtualisation separates a personal computer desktop environment from the physical machine through a client-server computing model – Virtual Desktop Infrastructure (VDI). The “virtualised’ desktop is then stored on a remote central server, allowing users to work from their remote desktop client, accessing operating systems, programs, data and applications from the centrally run server. This means users can access their desktops from anywhere on any device – a PC, a laptop, thin client or smartphone. This flexibility could lead to initiatives like a ‘Bring Your Own Computer’ scheme, where staff are given money to purchase a PC for use at home and at work, says Chris Lockery, manager of systems engineering at Citrix in New Zealand.

What costs are involved?

Most desktop virtualisation projects are expected to pay for themselves eventually. However, these projects usually require higher initial costs than a traditional PC upgrade, writes Network World. A hosted desktop model requires servers or blades to deliver virtual machines, and networked storage for applications and data. To run a virtualised desktop environment you will also need thin clients or “dumb” terminals. But once you’ve got all the necessary hardware and infrastructure in place, overall expenses may be reduced as resources can be shared.

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