FAQ: Desktop virtualisation

Here's how the technology works and why it might be a fit for your company

There's huge interest in desktop virtualisation technology, due to its promises of improved security, manageability and flexibility. Here are some details on how the technology works and why it might be a fit for your company.

What is desktop virtualisation?

The use of software to abstract the operating system, applications and associated data from the user's PC.

Why do IT shops use it?

Virtualisation, according to vendors, makes it easier to manage user PCs, provision new desktops, push out patches and enforce security policies. Total cost of ownership can be reduced with desktop virtualisation, depending upon the choice of software and hardware, but projects usually require higher upfront costs than a regular PC refresh.

What's in it for users?

Users get the option of running multiple operating systems on their computer, and can access hosted desktops from any location and any device. However, a hosted desktop model typically prevents offline access.

Are all desktop virtualisation products pretty much the same?

No. Broadly speaking, there are two kinds: local desktop virtualisation, which runs the entire desktop environment in a protected "bubble" on the user's PC; and hosted desktop virtualisation, which stores the users' desktops in the datacentre on a server or PC blade, requiring users to access their desktop images through a network connection.

Who are the key vendors?

There are many. Desktop virtualisation software is provided by established vendors such as VMware, Citrix and Microsoft, as well as numerous start-ups, including Neocleus and Virtual Computer.

Thin clients and PC blades, which are often paired with virtualisation software, are sold by various hardware vendors including Wyse Technology, HP, Dell, Sun and ClearCube.

What new desktop virtualisation technologies are in the works?

The biggest development is the emergence of bare-metal hypervisors, a type of local desktop virtualisation that installs the hypervisor on top of the PC's operating system. They not yet widely available, but vendors say they will provide better security than Type 2 hypervisors, because the bare-metal type runs independently of the client operating system, and deliver better performance than hosted desktops, because applications run on the local client instead of a remote server.

The technology is in various stages of development, but you can expect to see generally available products from the likes of VMware, Citrix, Neocleus and Virtual Computer later this year.

How much will it cost to virtualise my desktops?

It varies. Neocleus plans to charge between US$50 and US$100 (NZ$87 to $174) per desktop, while the premium version of VMware View costs about US$250 per virtualised desktop. But the cost of the software is just the beginning. A hosted desktop model requires servers or PC blades to deliver virtual machines, as well as networked storage for applications and data.

A desktop virtualisation project may also require purchasing of thin clients or other client devices. Anecdotally, Forrester Research analysts have found that enterprises spend about US$860 per user, plus network upgrades, to get a desktop virtualisation project up and running in the first year. If all goes well, desktop virtualisation should eventually pay for itself and provide long-term cost savings, but the time to ROI can be anywhere from six months to a few years.

How many IT shops are virtualising desktops today?

Forty-one percent of companies are investing in desktop virtualisation, according to a survey of 340 IT managers conducted by the IDG Research Services Group in April last year. Respondents were virtualising 6% of desktops at the time of the survey, and expected to virtualise one-third by 2010.

According to Gartner, worldwide revenue for hosted virtual desktop software will quadruple this year, going from US$74.1 million to nearly US$300 million.

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