Shawn P. McCarthy | Internaut: Streaming applications bring consolidation to the desktop

Migrating to streaming desktop applications means a fundamental change in the way the client systems are installed and maintained by central IT departments.

Shawn P. McCarthy

This is an era of system consolidation, and to keep the momentum going, there is no reason why it can't be extended all the way down to desktop applications.

When any application is developed, decisions must be made about which tasks should be handled by the client machine and which should reside on the server. If an application is Web-based, most functions are handled by the server. But when it comes to traditional office applications, including word processors, spreadsheets, Web browsers, e-mail clients and media players, the applications still reside on the client machine. Associated processing takes place on that machine, too.

But such applications don't have to reside locally. The ability to stream desktop applications has been at the center of a raging thin-client vs. fat-client debate for years. A standard PC is a fat client, while a thin client stores virtually nothing locally. It loads all programs as needed from remote servers.

Current virtualization technologies effectively separate applications from specific operating systems and data sources. Such applications also can be designed to call upon IT services from multiple locations. Just as this layer of abstraction has led to system virtualizations for enterprise applications and data, the concept can be applied to the machines that sit on the desktops of the average government worker.

Virtual application servers stream only the amount of code needed to launch the program and do basic functions. New code is streamed when new software functions are needed. The client can be set to call the application code, data and other IT services. Configuration settings can be stored locally, or in a central repository for all users.

Today, IT managers have to keep track of which users have which versions of an application, including patch management and other updates. This can become especially complex with programming tools. What if a programmer needs more than one version of a programming application because he's working on multiple projects using different versions?

Meanwhile, help desk people have to travel from machine to machine, or use remote-management systems to maintain the client systems. With desktop application virtualization, streaming applications move application management back to the data center. Pressure is off the help desk. And if the local client becomes corrupted, it can simply be rebooted using a new desktop image that is streamed from the central server. The real goal when considering streaming applications is to reduce both the cost and complexity of client system management.

One complicating factor is the steady migration to notebook PCs for many users. When these people are on the road, support for streaming applications becomes difficult. But there are acceptable configuration solutions, such as assuring that basic components always reside on the notebook. They can be used when the machine is unplugged, then updated as needed when it's networked. The classic thin client doesn't store anything locally, so obviously the concept has to be modified for a mobile workforce.

Migrating to streaming desktop applications means a fundamental change in the way the client systems are installed and maintained by central IT departments. Such a change is fraught with political baggage because users love the flexibility of their PCs.

But if agencies really want to take system consolidation seriously, migration to thin clients should be on the table along with everything else. There is great potential for cost savings and reduced staffing requirements.

Shawn P. McCarthy is senior analyst and program manager for IDC Government Insights of McLean, Va. E-mail him at smccarthy@idc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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