Predictions from analysts and virtualisation vendors that desktop virtualisation will take off during 2010 may be off the mark. Sales may take off, but the desktop PC may not have much to do with it.
VMware, Citrix and a range of other companies are putting clients on smartphones, minimalist thin-client hardware and USB keys in an effort to find something about Virtual Desktop Infrastructures (VDI) that will hook a customer's imagination, says Andi Mann, head of systems and storage management research at Enterprise Management Associates.
"VMware and Citrix both announced support for the iPhone, which is sexier, even though Blackberries have a greater penetration in business," Mann says. "Virtualisation on handhelds is a kind of halo project -like the Chevy Corvette that dazzles customers who come in and end up buying a Chevette."
The Chevette, in this case, is the aging desktop PC or laptop used by any one of millions of corporate workers stuck with Windows XP and looking to upgrade to Windows 7 when it comes out later this year, says Chris Wolf, virtualisation and infrastructure specialist at The Burton Group.
"Windows 7 is going to drive a lot of the activity around desktop virtualisation for companies that want or need to upgrade to Windows 7," Wolf says.
Bulk migrations will take a long time, but many companies will at least begin moving users to the new OS within weeks or months, Wolf says, and will try to avoid spending the money it would take to upgrade every PC while they do it.
"Strategically, both Citrix and VMware have been planning that Windows 7 would be a major catalyst for desktop virtualisation, and have been working toward it for a long time," Wolf says.
VMware announced more than a year ago that its VMware Infrastructure (VI) Client would run on the iPhone.
Citrix Systems demonstrated its iPhone client in May.
"Right now, it's a race to produce client-side hypervisors," according to Wes Wasson, chief marketing officer of Citrix Systems. "With that, [enterprise applications] are just a URL to the user. You could be using a home-office PC or a Mac or a smartphone; as long as the client is there, you have secure access."
Racing to an Anywhere Virtual Client Other software and hardware developers are also racing to build add-ons to make virtualisation usable, and devices to make it easy to acquire.
The User Environment Manager from AppSense, for example, is designed to make a virtual desktop mimic the real thing by allowing end users to make changes, install software add photos, store cookies and do all the other things they'd do on an actual "personal" computer.
AppSense, whose code is part of both VMware and Citrix's VDI offerings, stores all that data and code on the server and reloads it all every time that user logs on, no matter through what device the access comes, according to Martin Ingraham, VP of strategy for the company.
"We have to make it transparent across all the delivery technologies, so a user can set preferences on one, and go home and sign on using a different one, and have it exactly as they left it," he says.
Competitor Moka Five's desktop suite offers similar functionality adding the ability to personalize PCs and Macs without disturbing the "golden" PC image on which the company relies.
Thin-client manufacturer Pano Logic sells what it calls a "zero client" that has no CPU no operating system, drivers or moving parts. It's just a hub to connect a keyboard, mouse, monitor and other peripherals to a Windows desktop image running in the data center. A starter kit of five, plus one remote USB key that can turn any computer into an authenticated thin client, starts at $1,989.
LG Electronics is trying to streamline the hardware by building a thin client from NComputing a Pano Logic competitor directly into its SmartVine line of LCD monitors. The 19-inch version retails for $199, can save 70 percent on maintenance, 60 percent on hardware and 90 percent on electricity compared to a PC, the company says. NComputing sells a range of mini- to micro thin computers.
Big VDI Question: Management Tools "The hardware can really be anything, which is the great thing," according to Steve Bonney, vice president of business development at Bayscribe, a software developer that builds high-volume, server-based dictation systems for medical facilities.
Bonney is hoping VMware will push its client out on all the major phone operating systems to save his company development costs and show that even heavy duty applications work on very thin clients if the client is ubiquitous enough.
"This will completely reshape the way enterprise IT is done," Wasson says of Citrix' client-side hypervisor. "It shifts the information flow model back to pull-so you're not pushing things at users they don't want, and it simplifies things for IT."
Even without the fancy hardware, VDI can save a ton of money for IT in support, capital costs and licensing, Mann says. But questions about how to manage those assets, protect intellectual property, and even measure the amount of risk involved are holding many companies back.
"The fundamental problem is not getting access to the application from a phone," Mann says. "We can do that with a Web application. It's all about the manageability, without that, there's no question it's cool, but no one is really sure if it's practical."