VMware, which blazed the trail for broader adoption of server virtualisation, is hoping to drive virtualisation of the desktop with the help of numerous other hardware and software companies.

The virtualisation software vendor has just announced that it's formed an industry group, the Virtual Desktop Infrastructure Alliance, with more than 20 other software, hardware and service providers aimed at building joint virtual desktop offerings.

VMware envisions desktop virtualisation, in which IT administrators host and centrally manage desktops in virtual machines on servers in data centres, as a way to mitigate costs and time spent on managing and securing desktop PCs, especially for companies with remote workers or outsourced operations.

Charter members of the group include application virtualisation vendors Altiris and Softricity, both vendors of virtualisation software; thin-client computing providers including Sun, Wyse and Citrix; and PC blade and server blade makers ClearCube, HP and IBM. With desktop virtualisation, users could use traditional desktop PCs, thin-client devices or other hardware that can connect to servers through protocols such as Microsoft's Remote Desktop Protocol.

"The potential here is a lot more efficient use of hardware, better centralised management and potentially more flexibility with users in that they're not tied to a particular desktop device," said Illuminata analyst Gordon Haff. "I don't believe there's a one-size-fits-all approach. We'll probably end up with a combination of thin clients and various types of fat clients."

"Desktop virtualisation is a very immature market, but we do see some customers doing it because it gives them the ability to physically house operating systems and data files somewhere they have control, whether that's for security or manageability reasons," said IDC analyst Al Gillen. "Where it becomes more attractive is where customers use thin-client devices, when they move from a fat client to a thin client on the desktop. That's where the real benefits in acquisition and ownership costs can be realised."

But vendors still need to do a lot of work to make it easier and cheaper for users, said analysts. One of the biggest technological hurdles lies not in hardware, but in the software to manage images provisioning and connections, Haff said.

"We're still figuring out the whole software stack, which in some respects is more complicated than in the server world because you're talking about so many more images typically and more end-point devices to manage," Haff said. "It's both maturation of different pieces, primarily the software stack, and then pooling it all together in an easily deployed way and getting the price right."

VMware will collaborate with members to create, test and integrate joint desktop hosting offerings, said VMware's Jerry Chen.

Jim Jones, senior network administrator at service provider WTC Communications, has used VMware to consolidate servers and in September started to virtualise some of its desktops as well.

"It kind of happened naturally. We needed a PC in short order, and we just had an old junker lying around. So we thought, 'Let's just try Windows XP in it,' and it was neat and it worked. We didn't have to go out and buy another Dell," Jones said.

So far, the company has virtualised only a handful of PCs, but in the next six months, it plans to add another VMware server and virtualise a couple more servers and three or four more desktops, Jones said. In addition to saving on new equipment, Jones likes being able to configure the machines' memory as needed for users and giving each user his own virtual machine.

"It's very real as far as savings go. If you add up the equipment cost, you're close, but with other intangibles, it's a no brainer," Jones said. "And it gives end users their own PC, their own Windows XP, so they're not sharing because we run some legacy apps that wouldn't work well in a shared environment."