Super desktop

When I speak with other CTOs, we often talk about our back-end systems and what we're running in our data centres. But just as often, we compare notes on what tools we are using on our desktop machines.

When I speak with other CTOs, we often talk about our back-end systems and what we're running in our data centres. But just as often, we compare notes on what tools we are using on our desktop machines.

Last week, I wrote about the march of decentralisation into the enterprise. And as more computing power and capabilities move out to the edges populated by increasingly mobile users, the desktop is where the action is.

Some desktop technologies aren't terribly new. But because networks and machines are finally getting faster than most end-users will ever need, desktop applications that leverage underutilised resources make some previously cumbersome or even impossible IT tasks for mobile workers quite simple.

These days I'm running a multimode, heterogeneous network all the time -- even when I'm using a single laptop in an airplane's middle seat in economy class. Recently I reacquainted myself with VMware Workstation, which allows me to boot a Linux virtual machine within my Windows XP desktop environment. Now I find myself working on the Linux virtual machine just as much as in Windows XP. You can use VMware Workstation to boot several virtual machines at once, creating a virtual network of systems of all kinds, including all flavours of Windows, NetWare and FreeBSD.

Three years ago I used VMware daily, with Linux as my desktop OS and a Windows 98 virtual machine. But my machine ran slowly then, and RAM and processor power were relatively expensive. Things have changed.

I was on an airplane recently, testing an application I had built using Apache, MySQL and Perl on Debian Linux under VMware. I used the Windows XP side of my machine to test the web-based application in Internet Explorer while I was running another Linux virtual machine to generate traffic on my virtual network -- all from my cramped middle seat in coach with barely any room for pretzels and a soda.

As soon as I landed I used the Wi-Fi hotspot at the gate and the company VPN to upload the application I had developed on the plane on to a real Linux machine on a real network, and everything worked. Now that most of us have RAM and CPU cycles to spare, virtualisation applications such as VMware deliver amazing benefits. Building a useful network of machines no longer requires finding more hardware, fooling around in the wiring closet or even being on the ground.

Other desktop tools are making essential, but boring, IT desktop tasks on the ground much easier. At InfoWorld, I don't have any staff assigned to desktop backups, yet every desktop is backed up every night to multiple data centres and any InfoWorld employee can retrieve backed-up files from any time in the past month with a few clicks.

I use an online backup service that leverages unused bandwidth on the edges of the network to securely back up users' desktops and laptops over the internet, whether or not the end user is in a home office, branch office, using DSL in a hotel room or using a Wi-Fi hotspot in the airport. We've restored from backup dozens of times with the online backup service, and although I can't see and touch the backup media, it always works. If I never see a backup tape again, that's fine with me. I'll be too busy building a Beowulf cluster on my laptop to worry about that anyway.

Dickerson is InfoWorld's CTO. Read his weblog.

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