Microsoft opens virtual desktop options, says analyst

Licensing changes give enterprises more options

Changes Microsoft has made to its desktop-virtualisation licensing are giving enterprises more scenarios for how they can virtualise Windows XP or Vista on corporate desktops, but it's still a complicated and relatively expensive endeavor, according to a recent report by Forrester Research.

Effective January 1, Microsoft loosened some previous restrictions regarding how PCs can access a virtualised corporate desktop of Windows PCs in its Vista Enterprise Centralised Desktop (VECD) license, Forrester analyst Natalie Lambert writes in the report, "Desktop Virtualisation: The Updated Rules Of The Road For Virtualising Windows."

However, the licensing is still tied to Software Assurance (SA), Microsoft's costly enterprise maintenance and update service, and Microsoft still requires companies to license Windows on top of whichever enabling virtualisation software — its own, VMware or another competitor's — a company is using, she says.

"It's still very complicated, but the scenarios are opening up to make the vision of desktop virtualisation possible," Lambert says.

Desktop virtualisation allows an enterprise to run a virtual image of a user's desktop, complete with OS, applications and data an employee would normally have access to, in the datacentre rather than locally. Companies can, among other things, use this to take the cost out of their IT environments.

The changes to VECD licensing in particular open up two scenarios that allow contractors and full-time employees of enterprises to use their own PCs to access a virtualised corporate desktop that are among the problems enterprises are trying to solve using virtualisation, she says.

On one hand, enterprises are trying to reduce the number of IT assets they provide to employees to reduce costs, Lambert says. This is particularly true with contractors who don't work full time for a company. On the other, full-time employees want access to their corporate desktops even when they are not in the office, which is another problem desktop virtualisation can solve.

If an enterprise had virtualised its desktop PCs on a corporate network even before January 1, these scenarios were possible, she says, but were not allowed under the previous version of VECD. Now Microsoft is allowing them, but with some caveats and additional fees, Lambert says.

The new licensing works like this: if an enterprise already has SA covering all of its devices, it costs them US$23 per device, per year, to grant employees the ability to access their corporate PCs through their company's virtualised desktop.

If a PC is not covered by SA — say, in the case of a contracted offshore developer working in India without a Microsoft SA contract — then it costs US$110 per device, per year to grant someone access to the virtualised corporate desktop. Moreover, the company that wants to give a contractor access to the virtualised network has to purchase a business version of Vista or XP and have it installed on the contractor's PC for that person to legally under VECD access the virtualised network, Lambert says.

Employees who want to bring their own computers to work and use the corporate virtual desktop environment can access a Windows virtualised desktop environment for US$110 (NZ$191) per device, per year, but only if each employee who wants to do this already has purchased a copy of Windows and has it running on a PC that they own, Lambert says.

This type of scenario even makes it possible for an employee who prefers working on an Apple Mac computer rather than a Windows PC to use that computer at work to access the corporate desktop network, she adds.

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