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Desktop virtualization technology must wait for heyday

Although desktop virtualization technology is a solid long-term investment, up-front costs and user resistance continue to slow its adoption.

Although interest in desktop virtualization technology continues to ramp up, steep implementation costs and user resistance continue to hinder broad adoption.

In the last quarter, many VARs saw a lot of customers that were interested in knowing about the benefits of the technology, but they were doing due diligence rather than purchasing on a whim.

Part of customer interest is due to the technology's maturity and its ability to cater to mobile users.

"In the past, it wasn't possible to use a virtual desktop offline. Now, users can check out virtual machines on their local laptop while they're in the field, run [the VMs], connect to the Internet and everything syncs and backs up," said Joe Brown, president of Accelera Solutions Inc., a Falls Church, Va.-based solution provider that focuses on virtualization.

Desktop virtualization has also improved in handling applications and multimedia. "In the past, applications that required certain multimedia didn't perform well in a virtualized environment. But now, multimedia can be serviced by standard virtual [desktop] loads," according to Brown.

Expectations for further adoption

VARs predict that interest in desktop virtualization implementations should peak mid-2011, but that broad adoption depends on several factors. Some VARs find that desktop virtualization technology and cloud computing go hand-in-hand; as the demand for the cloud increases, so will desktop virtualization projects. For other VARs, whether to implement or not is really a conversation about return on investment (ROI).

"Lots of customers that we present VDI [virtual desktop infrastructure] to end up getting Terminal Servers because they've been around for ten years, they're easy to set up and have a clear ROI path. If there are seven-plus computers, you have a good ROI story for VDI, but typical pay back is still 18 to 20 months," said Carl Mazzanti, cofounder of eMazzanti Technologies, an IT reseller in Hoboken, N.J.

On the plus side, Mazzanti noted that after 20 months, virtual desktops start to pay for themselves in savings and growth. Each individual user also gets a better desktop experience than if they went out and bought a new computer on their own.

Another VAR expects that increased demand will depend largely on which companies implement first. "Just like any technology, it's going to take a large organization for people to follow. One big company has to be the case study for it -- GM, IBM, etc. -- and then others will say, 'Maybe we should look at it.' It's a follower mentality," said Irwin Teodoro, director of engineering for system integration at Laurus Technologies, Itasca, Ill.

VARs also agreed that implementations will mostly occur in one department of a company first, and others will follow. They say a hybrid environment of mostly physical PCs and a few virtual desktops must exist before widespread desktop virtualization adoption takes place.

Key selling points for desktop virtualization technology

While upfront costs keep customers from jumping on board, solution providers say that long-term savings is actually a major selling point for desktop virtualization technology. Desktop virtualization can help reduce the overall cost of the desktop operating environment by lowering ongoing management costs and being faster to deploy.

"The hard costs are a little steep, but in the long range, there's ease of management and better control of the environment. You don't have to run around the whole organization doing deployments; you can do it from one location. And you don't need a lot of staff to manage the environment," Teodoro said.

Teodoro also noted that with VDI, applications can be administered centrally. That means tighter security and more central visibility into what's deployed on each desktop. "A virtual desktop can also be placed on things that already exist in a customer's environment, such as storage," he said.

And, while desktop virtualization is great for saving on workstation costs and requires less overhead management, it also helps customers solve a lot of problems with legacy applications that won't work on a new operating system.

"Desktop virtualization is something we do with all of our clients. It's cost effective, it runs better on the environment and it can run Windows XP on Windows 7, a great plus," said David Fefer, senior networking engineer for Primary Support, an enterprise VAR in New York City.

Windows 7 presents desktop virtualization opportunities

VARs helping customers with Windows 7 upgrades can often piggyback desktop virtualization service on those upgrades. Some customers are using Windows 7 upgrades as a primary reason to adopt desktop virtualization technology, as it allows them to keep their existing hardware.

"Instead of replacing their desktop workstations throughout the enterprise to support Windows 7, employees can keep their desktop, use desktop virtualization on their current desktop hardware they have and in turn, extend the lifecycle of it," Brown said.

But Brown also finds that some customers will stay on physical PCs instead of going on virtual desktops if they need 3-D graphics, deal with really big files or rely on a peripheral device that isn't supported in a virtual environment.

Other VARs see Windows 7 deployed in a hybrid model -- on both PCs and virtual desktops. There's pressure to have some of the environment in a virtual desktop solution. Customers feel that they have to look at VDI not because it's a buzzword or a trend, but because research companies like Gartner are touting the importance of it as an investment.

"VDI affords you scalability; so if you have a portion of virtual desktops and feel like moving forward, then it's easy to invoke it enterprise-wide. With the traditional way, you have to add more physical computers, and that's expensive," Teodoro said.

Setbacks for adoption

Aside from the initial upfront investment, VARs agreed that the biggest hindrance to widespread adoption is lack of understanding from users. Employees don't want to give up the physical desktop that they're accustomed to because there is a cultural boundary of sort.

"Virtualization is a hard concept for the end user to accept; it's different from what they know. It's like giving a PC user a Mac and vice versa," Fefer said.

Teodoro agreed. "The end user often feels as though they are getting less of a machine because it's not physical or because they don't have a say on how it's built," he said.

Most VARs said they must educate their customer base, much of which remains very conservative. Sometimes adoption isn't as quick as they would expect, even if there's a long-term financial benefit.

Besides the cost sticker shock and user reluctance to move, there are also still issues with application compatibility. "Certain apps might not be supported by vendors in a virtual desktop environment. Your basic apps are supportable, but what about some vendor-specific apps that don't lend themselves to the virtual desktop? You have to make sure you're providing a consistent uniform solution that's supportable," Teodoro said.

Tips for successful desktop virtualization deployment

VARs have settled on several factors that contribute to successful desktop virtualization deployment. Application compatibility should be a primary consideration before implementation.

"You have to first determine what applications you want to include in a desktop image," said Teodoro. "We've gotten down to a virtual desktop and then found that the apps aren't supported. So now you're set back."

Second, the user population must be sized accurately to ensure optimal performance. "Our last implementation got off to a rocky start because the amount of users we were given changed, and as a result, there was sluggish performance. You need an accurate user count because you're using central computing," Teodoro said.

Brown cited user profiles as the biggest deployment challenge. "It's easy to install a vanilla version of desktop virtualization. One of the biggest challenges is dealing with user profiles. User profiles can in some cases be an Achilles heel on the environment if they're not managed and properly cared for."

Fefer recommended making sure the hardware that is purchased is compatible with the desktop virtualization software and that it is certified before implementation. "A good deployment plan involves making sure all partners -- third-party apps and software -- are compatible with the desktop virtualization software," he said. "Make sure that the network can support virtualization and make sure you have good virtualization support from your partner."

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