The growing maturity of virtual desktop technologies and customer interest in Windows 7 has virtual desktop infrastructure (VDI) vendors expecting big adoption numbers in 2010. But while most CIOs are at least thinking about desktop virtualisation, this year's projects may be limited to pilots and small deployments because of up-front costs and technology challenges that hamper user experience.
An ITIC survey of more than 800 businesses worldwide shows that 31 per cent of respondents plan to implement VDI this year, more than double the previous year. A related technology, application virtualisation, is also on the upswing with 37 per cent of respondents planning implementations, an increase from 15 per cent the previous year. Likewise, Gartner has found that 33 per cent of organisations plan to deploy hosted virtual desktops in 2010.
The flip side to those numbers is that about two-thirds of customers either won't deploy desktop and application virtualisation this year, or are undecided. There's good reason for that, says Burton Group analyst Chris Wolf.
"The ROI case for virtual desktops [over three to five years] is break-even at best right now," Wolf says. "Contrary to what vendors are claiming, the ROI isn't there for a large-scale, server-hosted virtual desktop deployment."
Some early adopters say they have saved money by prolonging the life of PCs or using less expensive thin clients, and that hosting desktop images in the datacentre improves manageability and makes it easier to restore an employee's desktop in case of device failure.
But moving desktop images and applications from the user's hands to the datacentre requires a major shift in both IT infrastructure and mindset. Network director John Turner of Brandeis University in Massachusetts has embraced server virtualisation but is still skeptical about the technology's counterpart on the desktop.
If a server goes down, users can probably still connect to the Internet and get work done. But "if a desktop shuts down, it's a whole different story," Turner says. "Folks will be dead in the water." VDI also requires significant IT staff training, he says.
But with many businesses planning to upgrade to the Windows 7 operating system, IT departments are taking a closer look at virtual desktop models. Vista never really caught on the way XP did, but Windows 7 is another story.
"Windows 7 is definitely a catalyst," Wolf says. "It's a good operating system certainly, but with the pending XP end-of-life in another four years, there are a lot of enterprises planning their next-generation desktops. They understand they have to retool their desktop infrastructure. That's causing them to put everything on the table, including desktop virtualisation."
Wolf believes 2010 will be the year enterprises "kick the tyres," and start small pilots. But even those who adopt desktop virtualisation aren't likely to virtualise their entire desktop infrastructures right away, he says. "In terms of wholesale virtualisation of the desktop, I don't think we're anywhere close at this point," Wolf says.
The typical CIO has a "dose of skepticism," says Phil Grove, global director of end user services at CSC, an IT outsourcing firm. "There are not a lot of people doing it at scale yet."
There are numerous models for enterprises to consider within the desktop virtualization realm. There's presentation virtualization, which executes applications on a server and remotely presents the application interface to a user's endpoint device, according to Burton Group.
VDI is generally synonymous with server-hosted virtual desktops, but is slightly different than presentation virtualization. Server virtualization is typically the back-end platform for VDI, with each desktop running inside an isolated server-based virtual machine.
Other forms of desktop virtualization include blade PCs and client-hosted virtual desktops. A blade PC runs in the datacentre and can be accessed remotely by client devices, but each blade PC can only serve one user at a time. Client-hosted virtualization, on the other hand, puts the desktop hypervisor on the desktop machine itself, requiring a more robust client device but also providing better options for offline access. Client-hosted virtualization is becoming popular with organisations that let employees bring their own PCs to work, Grove says.
You can also expect some cloud-hosted desktop offerings to emerge. The vendor Virtual Bridges has taken a step in this direction by offering hosted virtual desktops running in Rackspace datacentres.
VMware and Citrix have run into roadblocks in their plans to build bare-metal hypervisors -- virtualization software that runs directly on system hardware instead of on top of a host operating system -- for desktop PCs. But both companies, as well as Microsoft, are staying busy on the desktop front.
VMware recently upgraded its ThinApp application virtualization software to improve migration of applications from older versions of Windows to Windows 7. Microsoft, meanwhile, has lowered the price of licensing the Windows operating system in virtual desktop deployments, and announced new bundles with Citrix designed to lure customers away from VMware.
Specifically, Microsoft and Citrix are offering a year's worth of free desktop virtualization for as many as 500 users for companies that switch from VMware View to Citrix's XenDesktop VDI and Microsoft VDI.
Whether a customer opts for VMware, Citrix or Microsoft on the virtualization side, upgrades in Windows 7 will increase the viability of virtual desktop deployments, experts say.