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Tech Watch: Desktop virtualization movement creeping into customer sites

Analysts predict desktop virtualization will be headed for the mainstream by 2010, driven by VMware, Citrix and Microsoft, among others. Find out what this trend could mean for your business.

Desktop virtualization solutions will get more real in 2008, as businesses seek tighter control of client technology resources while simultaneously offering more flexibility to their employees and business partners about when and where they work.

In the simplest terms, desktop virtualization refers to the practice of isolating the operating system software from the underlying hardware. This can be handled locally on the client device, by plugging in a USB drive with the appropriate software, for example, or installing a separate virtualized operating system; or in a hosted configuration, with a centralized server offering up the appropriate OS software resources. Either way, desktop virtualization goes beyond application virtualization, which focuses on delivery of specific software applications.

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"Desktop virtualization is really the purest environment for the client," said Al Monserrat, vice president of worldwide channels and emerging product sales for Citrix, based in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. "You serve the OS by virtualization. You serve the applications by virtualization. You're essentially putting clean applications on a clean desktop and delivering this to the end user."

Through its recent acquisition of XenSource, Citrix is a player in virtualization products from the data center to the desktop. Monserrat believes the desktop movement is about two to three years behind the adoption of server virtualization.

But the two are definitely linked, according to value-added resellers (VARs) and distributors investing in the technology. "I don't think you can separate server, application or desktop virtualization from each other anymore," said Bill Botti, president and chief operating officer of distributor Alternative Technology Inc., an Arrow Electronics company in Englewood, Colo. "In and of itself, desktop virtualization is only part of the answer. All of the things you really want to do as a VAR -- control costs, manage support, offer security -- all tie back into the data center. For me, desktop virtualization is a building-block strategy for the enterprise."

Poised for adoption

Data from market research firm Gartner Inc. indicates that desktop virtualization will move toward mainstream usage by 2010. Among the technology companies leading the way are Citrix; Microsoft; Sentillion; SWSoft and its subsidiary, Parallels; VMware; and Wyse.

From a technical perspective, there are several motivators, notably the emergence of microprocessors designed to support hypervisors, a virtualization layer that runs directly on top of the hardware. Intel Virtualization Technology and Advanced Micro Devices' AMD-V will play a role here: Both are slated to be a standard feature of PCs by the end of 2008. Awareness of desktop virtualization is also on the upswing, evidenced by the discernable pickup in the number of Macintosh computers configured to run a virtual version of Windows. When all is said and done, Gartner predicts that the number of virtualized PCs will reach 660 million in 2011, compared with fewer than 5 million in 2006.

"Desktop virtualization will begin to circumvent the need to replace PCs in a regular refresh cycle," said Carl Mazzanti, cofounder of eMazzanti Technologies, an IT reseller in Hoboken, N.J. "As PCs come up for replacement, the investment in new workstations can be invested in a solid server to emulate the desktop experience while simultaneously upgrading the users' experience. In the end, sales for virtualization will pick up as desktop sales are cannibalized."

Hewlett-Packard Co. (HP) is one hardware company hedging its bets. In October, the vendor completed its acquisition of thin-client technology specialist Neoware Inc., because it considers network-attached thin clients to be key for desktop virtualization adoption, according to Win Reis, solution manager for blade PCs and Consolidated Client Infrastructure (CCI) for HP. Every approach has different benefits, Reis said. For thin clients, key benefits include improved security and business continuity, as well as manageability. "This is not something that is a future technology," he said.

The motivators

IT services companies that have worked with clients on desktop virtualization projects say cost and administrative factors are ideal conversation starters. "From a cost standpoint, your customer doesn't have to spend their money on a new desktop. Instead, they can put the money into infrastructure," said Ronnie Parisella, chief technology officer for Primary Support, an enterprise VAR in New York.

In a Forrester Research survey of 565 enterprise IT decision makers, 52% cited cost as a reason their company is evaluating desktop virtualization. Moreover, 49% indicated that security was a factor, while 46% pointed to manageability. Considering that more than 40% of the average desktop IT manager's time is spent on reactive tasks versus 20% on strategic project work, it's easy to understand that motivation.

With desktop virtualization, individual machines can be provisioned and upgraded from a central location, notes Pete Foley, CEO at RingCube Technologies Inc. The Santa Clara, Calif., company sells the MojoPac desktop virtualization product line and plans to begin recruiting VARs in January 2008, especially those with a security background. The memory or hard drive space associated with a certain system can be allocated dynamically, or a specific application can be made available, in the case of a telecommuting worker or subcontractor who works from different locations day to day.

"This is the future of enterprise computing," predicts Natalie Lambert, a senior analyst for Forrester who covers client security and client management. "The value is really security and really starting to centralize desktop images. IT managers can sleep better at night know that data isn't on the endpoint."

Mobility, ironically, is both a driver -- because more individuals are connecting from their homes, hotels or elsewhere -- and an inhibitor -- because a connection is necessary to reap the benefits of host-enabled desktop virtualization, Lambert said.

One note of caution: It will be tougher to justify desktop virtualization at customer prospects with fewer than 100 users, said Dave Bennett, president of Connections for Business, a VAR in Hollywood, Fla. That's because the $8,000 to $10,000 investment needed for the server alone and to assure fault tolerance can be a tough argument to make, he said. Realistically speaking, the infrastructure for a desktop virtualization project can start at about $20,000 to $25,000, estimates Primary Support's Parisella.

VMware has seen a spike in interest among its channel partners for desktop virtualization training, said Julie Eades, director of worldwide channel marketing for the Palo Alto, Calif., company. From a services point of view, partners are bringing in $4 to $6 in consulting and implementation revenue for every $1 in desktop virtualization sold, she estimated. "That's a very rich business proposition," she said.

Fertile territory

Jerry Chen, senior director of enterprise desktop products for VMware, said the technology is being adopted most readily in highly regulated environments that are concerned about compliance issues and privacy, such as hospitals, government agencies, financial services firms and schools.

Scott Woodgate, director of the Windows Business Group at Microsoft, which is moving to better support virtualization within its products, also cites financial services businesses as a hot bed of pilot activity within desktop virtualization. But the software giant believes it's still too early to know which adoption scenarios will play out. "While it's a no-brainer to virtualize your Windows Server workloads, it's more complex for Windows client as you make a trade-off between end-user experience and flexibility. Of course, over time, technology innovations will help with this trade-off."

About the author Heather Clancy is a business journalist and consultant who has been covering the high-tech channel for close to 18 years.

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