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Will desktop virtualization boost adoption of thin clients?

Some solution providers believe desktop virtualization has sparked a renewed interest in thin clients; others think it will simply beam desktop images to traditional desktop PCs.

Watch out for desktop virtualization.

Yes, virtualization is coming to corporate desktops, as organizations look to boost security, centralize control of resources and ease technology refresh.

Desktop virtualization hosts users' desktop images as virtual machines. With this approach, every desktop image -- operating system and applications -- is centrally located and managed in the data center. Citrix Systems Inc. and EMC Corp.'s VMware unit rank among the top technology providers in desktop virtualization. Channel players generally agree that interest in this architecture is growing, but they differ on what virtualization really means for desktop hardware.

To wit: Will desktop virtualization breathe new life into thin-client devices, or will the technology simply beam desktop images to traditional desktop PCs?

Some solution providers believe desktop virtualization has sparked a renewed interest in thin clients. Of particular note are thin-client laptops, a fairly recent form-factor innovation. Devon IT Inc., Hewlett-Packard Co. -- through its 2007 acquisition of Neoware Inc. -- and Wyse Technology Inc. all offer thin-client laptops.

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The thin-client laptop offers security-conscious customers a portable, safe device, according to Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions Inc., a Citrix platinum partner that specializes in virtual access solutions. As with traditional thin-client desktops, data and applications reside on a server rather than on the user's machine. This technology is something Accelera's federal customers "are very interested in exploring," Brown said. He added that thin-client laptops provide customers with an alternative to full-disk encryption.

Larry Letow, president of Convergence Technology Consulting, a network engineering and integration firm, said he believes desktop virtualization and the arrival of laptop "dumb terminals" has helped rekindle the thin-client marketplace. Convergence's own sales force uses thin-client laptops from Wyse.

"Most of the workforce has become mobile," he said. "What better way to lock down a [computer] and have flexibility and mobility?"

Desktop appliances arrive

Desktop thin clients are getting a makeover as well, and that may make them more attractive to buyers. Citrix, for example, pushes a new class of client machine it terms the desktop appliance. In May, Citrix rolled out a Desktop Appliance Partner Program that aims to establish standards for devices used for virtual desktop delivery. Members include BOSaNOVA, Chip PC, Computer Lab International, Devon IT, HP, Igel, VXL, Itona and Wyse. The program works to ensure interoperability between endpoint devices and XenDesktop, the Citrix desktop virtualization offering.

Brown said the desktop appliance category occupies a niche between thin clients and full PCs. Such an appliance, compared with traditional thin clients, has a little more processing power and additional support for plug-in peripherals, he noted.

Desktop appliances also seek to differentiate in video. Citrix offers vendors two levels of desktop appliance specifications for creating "Citrix Ready" devices. At the basic level, an appliance must support minimum resolution of 1280x1024 in 16-bit color, according to Citrix. The plus level requires support for modern widescreen displays and minimum resolution of 1600x1200 in 24-bit color. Basic appliances must have at least 32 MB of video memory, while plus devices must have at least 128 MB.

Brown said the expanded capabilities make desktop appliances "applicable to a broader range of end users." From a marketing perspective, desktop appliances create an opportunity for vendors to re-approach customers who found thin clients lacking, he added.

But not everyone foresees a thin client revival.

"We will see a lot more desktops operating as thin clients than we will see thin clients," said Mike Strohl, president of Entisys Solutions Inc., an enterprise virtualization solutions provider. "I don't see this mad rush to thin clients" as the next desktop replacement, he noted.

Strohl said he expects to see a greater percentage of end-user devices move to a virtual desktop infrastructure. Of those machines, he said he believes 10% to 20% will be thin clients while the remainder will be PCs that operate as thin clients and access centralized resources.

Stuart Robinson, vice president of business development at Teradici Corp., said desktop virtualization will lift thin client sales, but not greatly. Teradici offers PC-over-IP technology designed to deliver desktop images from a centralized host across standard IP networks.

"From what we hear from end customers, there are some increased thin client deployments, but the majority is virtualized desktops taking share from existing application virtualization technologies such as Microsoft's Terminal Services and Citrix Presentation Server [now XenApp]," he said.

Business impact of desktop virtualization

Although Accelera hasn't focused on desktop hardware sales, the company could see an uptick in thin-client business, Brown said. He cited lack of customer familiarity with the new-look thin-client device.

"People tend to come out to specialized vendors to procure [items] like this in the beginning, until it becomes a known commodity," said Brown, who anticipates a short-term spike in sales.

Strohl, meanwhile, said he expects to see increased demand for the technologies that surround virtualized infrastructure. Virtualization reduces the need for physical servers, but drives capital expenditures around the storage and networking components associated with the centralized computing resource.

Margin-boosting consulting services could also see a boost from desktop virtualization and thin-client computing.

Strohl said solution providers can advise customers on such topics as optimizing systems for performance, building a management infrastructure around centralized resources, and running a business in a virtualized environment.

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