Desktop virtualization: niche solution, or new desktop standard?

Desktop virtualization promises to simplify management, increase efficiency and improve security, but it doesn’t come cheap and requires a big rethink. Will the latter forever relegate desktop virtualization to a few corners of the enterprise, or will the allure of the former convince corporations it is time to start from scratch?

The Experts
Brian Duckering
Brian Duckering

Senior Manager of Endpoint Virtualization Group at Symantec argues that desktop virtualization captivates IT because it addresses some of their core problems, but until it adds up to a win for users it will continue to be a niche solution. View debate

John Fanelli
John Fanelli

Vice President of Enterprise Desktops and Apps at Citrix says the current desktop standard can’t keep up with the new demands of work and virtualization is the answer. View debate

Brian Duckering

Virtual desktops are a niche tech

Virtual desktop technology appeals to IT because it promises to address IT problems. But most of those promises come up short and, worse, until the tech provides a positive advance for users, they will reject it. Taken together there are simply too many reasons for most people to avoid virtual desktops for it to be anything but niche for now.

Desktop virtualization cheat sheet

What is sometimes forgotten is that IT is really all about enabling the end user. For any organization, value is created when a user is able to access computing resources and be productive. Unfortunately, desktop virtualization often forces compromise, with the strongest arguments for virtualizing the desktop coming from the IT community.

IT likes desktop virtualization because it's all about centralizing and standardizing to simplify the management of these systems, which is often in opposition to end-user demand for greater mobility and flexibility. So, infrastructure decisions involving desktop virtualization must be done intelligently, carefully weighing the cost and convenience to IT with end-users' need to be productive anywhere or have dedicated and responsive computing power.

We must recognize that today end users hold a lot more influence over computing than at any time in the past, insisting on flexible work locations, personally owned devices, disconnected use, etc. And in the majority of these cases, there are legitimate business drivers supporting the decisions. It is largely up to IT to figure out how to allow these new models, without compromising security or manageability.

There are certainly environments where virtual desktops are the best solution, even if the user experience is not improved, like when data must be confined to the data center, or in highly regulated industries or even offshore engineering. User productivity and mobility may be compromised, but other factors weigh more heavily. This is a niche where IT requirements actually trump user preference.

One niche where users may actually embrace virtual desktops comes from the increasing popularity of tablets. From a tablet, you can access a virtual desktop while on the move, and run all of your business applications that won't run on the tablet OS, without having to carry a full PC. This case is becoming more popular as RDP for mobile devices continues to improve and become more prevalent. And in fact this use case may eventually move virtual desktops out of the niche category – but not until a host of other obstacles are overcome. These obstacles include:

* With virtual desktops storage costs increase dramatically as several gigabytes are transferred from cheap distributed storage to expensive data center storage for every converted desktop

* License management is challenging in any environment, but virtual desktops make it even harder. Traditional management systems weren't designed for this dynamic environment, and often more licenses are required to ensure compliance.

* Infrastructure costs can be enormous, with storage being only one factor. Add thin client devices, VDI licensing, various servers, plus additional OS licenses in the form of VECD or VDA. This is rarely a break-even financial decision, with CAPEX often outweighing any predicted OPEX savings. Financial arguments will rarely point to this as a solution.

* Maintenance costs are one of the biggest promises of virtual desktops. But reducing operating costs is really only possible at near 100% saturation. At 15% - 25% (the high end of most practical implementations), the existing landscape does not change much and these new costs become additive. Plus, everyone accessing a virtual desktop must do so from a physical one, potentially doubling the number of endpoints to be managed.

How long virtual desktops remain niche will depend on how long it takes to solve these problems and how long it will take to convince users they will be better off. In the meantime, there are other good alternatives, depending on the objective. 

If it is just a matter of centralizing computing, the terminal server approach works well for most, and is far less expensive. For better management of distributed systems, streaming is a mature and proven technology that centralizes management, automates user customization, improves delivery and removal of apps, and reduces helpdesk calls, among other things.

There is no one best solution for everybody today, and IT managers should be encouraged to pick the best model for each user group. Heterogeneity will be with us for a long time.

Symantec is a global leader in security, storage, virtualization and systems management solutions that help consumers and organizations secure and manage their information-driven world. Symantec's software and services protect against more risks at more points, more completely and efficiently, enabling confidence wherever information is used or stored. 

John Fanelli

Desktop virtualization benefits drive standardization

Consumerization of IT, business agility and the changing dynamics of work are mainstream requirements for IT and they are not being solved by today's PC management solutions. Desktop virtualization solves these and more requirements and will emerge as the standard for business computing over the next three years.

As a result, IT organizations will get out of the business of managing hard-coded endpoints and instead, enable users to access desktops, applications and data from any device in any location.

Let me explain. Organizations today are struggling with the data security balancing act: on one hand they need to deploy technologies to help prevent data leakage/loss, while on the other they are trying to enable their workers to work from anywhere using the device of their choice.

How VDI affects the network 

Additionally, initiatives such as business continuity and Windows 7 migrations are top-of-mind, yet building the plan to make these strategies successful is a monstrous task. And then you have the business challenges of growth, both organic and inorganic. IT needs to be able to support both the hiring of the new workforce (with all of their demands) and the ability to rapidly integrate employees from mergers and acquisitions.

We know that every organization is struggling with the challenges of maintaining the traditional PC environment, not to mention using the traditional PC to meet the requirements described. This is not because PCs are inherently bad. It is because the process of managing and securing them has become too complex given the nature of how workers employ the devices.

Users need to be mobile. They need access to new apps faster than IT can certify them. They need to use their home computers to access corporate data when they can't get to the office (either because of a sick child or a tornado). Workers now require and expect new levels of flexibility that the traditional PC environment just can't deliver.

Desktop virtualization will fundamentally change how we run our businesses. It will change how we think about recruiting new talent. It will change how we think of preparing for a disaster. Overall, it will change how we think of IT in the context of enterprise computing.

As examples, desktop virtualization supports:

* Organizational requirements around consumerization. It is a reality that the technology available in the home is better than the technology provided by IT. Because of this, users want to use their devices and their applications to get their work done. Without desktop virtualization, enabling this flexibility is nearly impossible and the security implications are far worse.

* Business agility initiatives. For most organizations, building out business continuity/disaster recovery (BC/DR) plans is a top priority; so is supporting a virtual workforce and enabling business expansion through acquisitions and branch office expansion.

* The changing workforce. Today's emerging workforce has different expectations about IT than previous employees did. They expect to consume IT on their own terms - they expect to get access to their resources when they want them. But, unlike previous generations, if IT doesn't meet these needs, employees will find a way around it.

* Windows 7 migrations, and beyond. Hundreds of millions of dollars and hours will be spent over the next three years migrating from Windows XP and Windows 7, and organizations can't afford to wait. Mainstream support for Windows XP has already ended and extended support will end in April 2014. The question is, will IT have all PCs migrated by then?

Desktop virtualization will become the corporate computing standard by enabling each of these initiatives. It does this by decoupling the desktop from the physical hardware and separating the OS, apps and data to create an on-demand service. This service can be delivered to any user, on any device, anywhere.

This, in itself, enables consumerization and supports that changing workforce. But it also enables IT to easily make changes to desktop virtualization infrastructure, which supports IT in its BC/DR initiatives and makes an OS migration as easy as a few clicks.

As a reflection of the changing market forces, Citrix desktop virtualization solution, XenDesktop, has experienced significant growth in the last two years, with upwards of 6 million seats sold to approximately 10,000 organizations worldwide. Does this spell niche to you?

Citrix Systems is a leading provider of virtual computing solutions that help companies deliver IT as an on-demand service. Founded in 1989, Citrix combines virtualization, networking, and cloud computing technologies into a full portfolio of products that enable virtual workstyles for users and virtual datacenters for IT. More than 230,000 organizations worldwide rely on Citrix to help them build simpler and more cost-effective IT environments.

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