COMMENTARY—Editor's Desk

The rise of virtual desktops

The path to virtual desktops will be more complicated than the path to virtual servers.

Managing a far-flung sprawl of desktop computers has been the bane of network administrators for years. And that was before laptop PCs, teleworking and Web applications started making network operations even more complicated.

So it’s tempting to think that desktop virtualization applications offer new hope for fixing common desktop PC dilemmas. But don’t expect the transition to virtual desktops to be as easy as the transition to virtual servers.

Clearly, the recent evolution -- and increasing adoption -- of virtualization software for network servers has given rise to a new era of possibilities and practices.

Those practices are penetrating more systems in the commercial markets and are slowly making headway at certain defense and civilian agency data centers, as GCN reports in this issue. The reason is simple: Virtualization represents one of the clearest paths information technology managers can take to reduce equipment costs and operating expenses.

The hard savings are as obvious as the soft savings are compelling. With servers often being used just 3 percent of the time, why buy, house and cool dozens or more of them when the computing work can be done in virtual environments on a handful of machines? That’s not to mention the manpower and management costs that could be saved.

Until recently, organizations hesitated to make the switch because of concerns about reliability, security and control. But a variety of suppliers and customers are proving that virtual servers can be managed effectively and securely.

Moving to virtual, or hosted, desktops, on the other hand, presents complications for administrators and a murkier cost-savings picture.

Most workers don’t care how network servers work. But when you start messing with customized desktops, management time suddenly begins to spike.

There are savings in buying less expensive thin-client machines, which come without hard drives or RAM, or zero-client machines, which forgo operating systems and drivers. But there’s still the upfront expense of making the switch. And software licensing deals, though cost-effective, are trickier to administer.

In the end, the benefits of a centrally managed, scalable virtual desktop infrastructure will outweigh the drawbacks. As cloud computing beckons with another level of potential cost savings, virtual desktops will look even more attractive.

And given VMware’s recently announced Mobile Virtualization Platform, mobile phone services won’t be far behind.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

Reader Comments

Wed, Feb 11, 2009 Sunil

This is interesting. What type of servers are often used only 3% of the time?

Fri, Feb 6, 2009

Of course, the main type of virtual desktop I see is something like a user getting a Mac and then running Windows XP virtualized under parallels. No server, no Sys Admin, no management (which is usually the idea).

Fri, Feb 6, 2009 Tom Rose Boston, MA

Great characterization of the desktop dilemma. However, there are new solutions coming that will give IT the control it needs without sacrificing the personalization workers crave. You won't have to choose one or the other. And this will be possible for VDI (server-hosted desktops accessed through thin clients) as well as notebooks and desktops virtualized using Type 1 or Type 2 hypervisors. IT will be able to enjoy the low OPEX and security benefits of locked-down desktops, and end users will have all the customization of a home PC. The virtual desktop management solutions that will make this possible will greatly simplify the path to desktop virtualization, though I agree it will continue to lag behind server virtualization. -Tom

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