Shawn P. McCarthy


Twilight of Windows XP means decision time for IT managers

When it comes to employee desktops, the revolution may well be virtualized

Now that many IT facilities have virtualized the bulk of their servers, many are now looking to also virtualize their desktop environments. This trend seems to be reaching critical mass in government offices right now — for a few good reasons.

The main driver has to do with the replacement cycle of aging desktop machines. Government organizations need to make some tough choices about their lingering Windows XP systems. Microsoft is ending support for government users of Windows XP by 2014.

As many IT managers are exploring next steps for managing a fleet of PC desktops, many are also noticing the growth and affordability of enterprise desktop virtualization offerings from VMware, Citrix and others.

Related coverage:

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Managers also are considering software as a service (SaaS) and, of course, cloud computing, both of which provide a conduit for an enterprisewide thin-client environment.

At the same time, IT shops are being asked to support a wide array of mobile devices. This can be complicated if system managers need to maintain a growing variety of client software and operating systems. But many virtual desktop images can be set up to load on mobile devices. Employees can be allowed to use any device they choose as long as it supports the mobile desktop. Then the responsibility of IT management stops at the virtual window. All other support and device maintenance is up to the owner of each device, taking pressure off IT managers but still supporting the new devices.

More mobile devices can mean more data out of the office and at risk. But virtual desktop solutions can be configured to store all data on a central server. If a device is lost, the data that device uses may not be part of the loss.

Virtual desktop ROI

Against this backdrop, there is a growing understanding that desktop virtualization can provide a significant and fast return on investment. I talked to one university CIO recently who said he's seen a 50 percent reduction in overall life cycle costs for PCs that have been switched to virtual desktops. A state-level government IT manager estimated his savings at about 38 percent when he went virtual for desktop machines.

The savings comes from reduced software licensing costs, machine costs and less time repairing, upgrading and managing individual PCs. They also spent less time traveling between buildings, keeping staff in the office where they can do other work.

For all of these, this year will represent more than just an OS version upgrade for many organizations. Windows 7 represents a true fork in the road when it comes to deciding the future of a typical government organization's PCs.

Microsoft offers a variety of licensing options for Windows 7, including licenses for running the operating system in an enterprise virtual PC environment. Managers can choose to purchase thin- or zero-client machines for about $250, as opposed to full desktop PCs, which can range from $450 to over $1,000.  Another alternative: Most regular PCs can be set up to show a full virtual desktop in a special window. That window, even though it's running on an older PC, shows a fully functioning Windows 7 desktop. 

Some groups choose to install a Linux operating system on the client PC for a fast boot. Users see the desktop in about 30 seconds. Then they can view a window containing a virtual desktop that looks and functions like a Windows 7 desktop. Some offices have used this solution to keep some older PCs running for an additional two years beyond typical retirement age.

Government systems managers who make a smart upgrade to Windows are doing more than directly replacing Windows XP and continuing with business as usual. They are heading down a road that will allow them to adopt companion technologies, including application virtualization and virtualized strong system management tools.

But the applications can also be a sticking point that could make it more difficult for some offices to virtualize their desktops. If all of the applications used by an organization can't be ported to the virtualized desktop, then those organizations might face additional investments to upgrade or replace those apps. That's when the full ROI for this proposed transition needs to be recalculated. It may be, for some organizations, that the promised savings of virtual desktops won't materialize — because of these extra software costs.

But if the transition to virtual desktops does work economically, then government systems planners can help assure that their future IT transitions will have less impact on their offices, as everything is centralized and standardized.

Today, many of the government offices using Windows PCs have pent-up demand for PC upgrades. Many offices avoided upgrading to Windows Vista in recent years. They continue to nurse along aging Windows XP systems as they decide whether to migrate all PCs to Windows 7, or possibly investigate other alternatives.

That makes fall 2011 an opportune time for government offices to examine their desktop virtualization capability. Done correctly, this can save money and greatly reduce daily management PC management tasks.


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